By Catherine Norwood
Australia is a small player on the international aquaculture scene, but outgoing chair of the National Aquaculture Council (NAC) Pheroze Jungalwalla says Australia is capable of punching well above its weight with a few carefully chosen strategies.
He has been intimately involved in the development of aquaculture in Australia since the 1970s. This has given him a broad understanding of international issues and trends, and how Australia can fare well in both a local and global context. For the past five years he has acted as an advocate for the expanding sector as NAC chair.
As Pheroze Jungalwalla wraps up his time as NAC chair, he takes us through the five issues he believes could make or break Australian aquaculture.
In Tasmania, plans to expand the production of Atlantic Salmon have generated increasing controversy in recent months. Despite international recognition that local practices meet and exceed international sustainability standards, there is local opposition to the expansion of aquaculture operations.
This serves as an immediate example of the importance and difficulty in managing reputational risk, Pheroze Jungalwalla says.
“Aquaculture in Australia is a well regulated and monitored industry, but we need third parties to help us convey that message and to engage with the community who grant our social licence,” he says.
“Regardless of industry credentials, it will be community opinion and support, not industry capabilities or competence alone, that will determine ongoing success.”
He says community expectations are frequently manipulated by an amalgam of organisations creating a sense of “doom, gloom and guilt” in the community.
“Investment in social-licence activities may appear to take away from production activities, but it is worthwhile in the long term because it reduces an otherwise unmanageable risk: community and consumer rejection.”
To date, the industry’s development has occurred within the bounds of regulation. This has ensured it has developed to sustainable international standards.
But Pheroze Jungalwalla says there are opportunities to revise both red and green tape to provide a framework that is more supportive towards continued investment and development. He hopes the Australian Government’s National Aquaculture Strategy, currently being drafted, will go some way to addressing this, while also ensuring the industry continues to operate sustainably and responsibly.
Regulatory changes could improve biosecurity and protection from exotic pest and disease threats by recognising regional differences in disease status.
“Inadvertent importation of exotic disease organisms on seafood products or material is a real risk. The Australian Government has the sole responsibility of regulating
imports of products or material that may carry a biosecurity risk. We need to balance trade considerations against the potential threat to our industry,” he says.
Australia is an expensive place to grow food, including fish and seafood. This includes costs associated with operating to high standards of environmental sustainability and social responsibility. Of necessity, Australian aquaculture has been geared to high-value products, including Southern Bluefin Tuna, Atlantic Salmon, abalone, prawns and Barramundi.
“We should also consider profitability as a performance indicator for the aquaculture sector, rather than volumes produced, or gross value of production,” Pheroze Jungalwalla says.
“Australian aquaculture cannot afford to be geared to producing low-cost protein. We must aim for a product that commands a higher value. It is essential that we focus on a ‘distinctive edge’ to trade on.”
This ‘edge’ could be the quality, wholesomeness or safety of Australian products, sustainable practices, a unique product such as Native Oysters or Murray Cod, or a product suited to specific, limited geographic conditions, such as cold-water abalone species. Australian prawns have managed to compete successfully against cheaper imports, based on superior quality and size.
Pheroze Jungalwalla says Australian success has also been the result of consistent investment in research and development. This has improved husbandry and handling, health and disease management, feeding regimes, genetic selection and marketing.
“While it is imperative for aquaculture enterprises and sectors to invest in proprietary R&D, governments should also be involved in developing innovative solutions,” he says. “Some nationally valuable R&D would not be undertaken if the government didn’t underwrite it.”
However, he says, it is a real challenge for industry to demonstrate its own investment in tactical and applied R&D. This is vital in order for industry to lobby government for supporting investment.
He says while individual sectors and businesses have their own research needs, national priorities identified in the Australian Government’s National Marine Science Plan 2015–2025 with links to aquaculture include DNA sequencing, remote sensing applications, environmental sensor networks, aquaculture feed formulation (using alternative ingredients), bioproducts from marine organisms, and marine ecosystem remediation.
Environmental sustainability, productivity, profitability, and resilience in the face of social, environmental and market changes are among the priorities the FRDC has listed for aquaculture in its Research, Development and Extension Plan 2015–20. Over the period of the plan, the FRDC has committed $2.25 million to RD&E on new and emerging aquaculture opportunities, of which $750,000 has been used to leverage further investment from industry and the Australian Government through the Rural R&D for Profit Programme, to a total of $6 million.
Further, there remains a need for investment in R&D on issues such as biosecurity and disease management.
“Biosecurity and disease management is a complex issue, particularly in an open aquatic environment where disease and pest pathways are difficult to identify and there are multiple users sharing the environment,” Pheroze Jungalwalla says.
“Another challenge for the aquaculture industry is to explain, and if necessary lobby for, better understanding of the risks and potential impact of exotic diseases on Australian aquaculture.”
The need for R&D in this space is an issue that would benefit from cooperation across the whole of the seafood sector.
The Australian aquaculture industry comprises several species-based sectors, ranging from a collection of “rugged individualists” to well-organised and sophisticated operators in agribusiness.
“In most cases each species sector has its own industry association, focused on sector-specific issues. The aquaculture industry does have a common voice, the National Aquaculture Council, but this lacks the funding of similar primary production sector peak bodies,” Pheroze Jungalwalla says.
“Arguably, aquaculture is a subset of the seafood industry and could be part of a national peak body representing all seafood industries. There are undoubtedly advantages in a peak body addressing matters of aggregate national interest to the whole seafood industry.
“And while there is cautious optimism in discussions underway to establish such a body, it will be a challenge to cater for the sometimes differing interests and needs of fishers, farmers and vendors of seafood.”
With Pheroze Jungalwalla’s departure, the National Aquaculture Council (NAC) is operating without a dedicated executive officer, but with Adam Main from the Tasmanian Salmonid Growers Association and Aaron Irving from the Pearl Producers Association as co-chairs.
Aaron Irving says the current arrangements are expected to continue for a year or so. This is pending the outcome of efforts to establish a national peak body, Seafood Industry Australia, incorporating all commercial elements of the Australian seafood sector.
“We definitely need a peak body, but the NAC needs to be sure the interests of Australia’s diverse aquaculture sector will continue to be represented at all levels. So understanding the level of representation on the peak body is important to us,” he says.
“The NAC could be incorporated into the new body, or it may continue as a separate organisation to represent members on aquaculture-specific issues, while supporting the new organisation on issues of broader interest such as country-of-origin labelling for seafood.”
Although stepping down from his position with the NAC, Pheroze Jungalwalla will remain involved in the aquaculture industry through his private consultancy work.
National Aquaculture Council, email@example.com