On common ground

A multi-faceted career helps Chris Calogeras represent a diverse range of fishery perspectives and ensure every voice has a chance to be heard

By Annabel Boyer

Photo of Chris Calogeras  in Moreton Bay Chris Calogeras in Moreton Bay, where he worked with Tunnel Net fishers to develop a code of conduct.
Photo: Chris Calogeras

Chris Calogeras has made a 30-year career of bringing people with disparate interests together to foster connections, fruitful negotiations and, ultimately, seafood success.

“There are times, at big meetings for example, when the challenge of working with groups with multiple interests sitting at the same table can get difficult,” he says. “It might be about economic priorities for Barramundi or access for wild-catch fishers. For the Indigenous sector it is about engagement and recognition; their objectives don’t always match up.

“But I think if I believe in all of those aims, I can ensure that each side’s view is properly considered and we can address any perceived conflicts of interest.”

Chris Calogeras has engaged with different parts of the fisheries sector from many vantage points: as a fisheries manager with the Northern Territory Government, a business operator, a researcher and an industry consultant. These diverse roles have given him the experience to relate to the broad spectrum of stakeholders involved in fisheries.

He has also seen fisheries management evolve from a simple production approach focused on target species, to the incorporation of complex ecological, economic and social dimensions, recognising multiple stakeholders.

He says that by its very nature, the fisheries sector needs people who can engage and negotiate on behalf of its stakeholders. “Many people in the sector have difficulty or a limited capacity to engage with others: fishers, processors or Indigenous Australians who often only spend time by themselves or with their peers. Put them in a room full of other stakeholders or agency people (government or research) for a day or more, it kills them; they are like fish out of water,” he says.

It has often been his role to assist with this engagement.

He has represented diverse organisations including the FRDC, the former Seafood Cooperative Research Centre and industry groups such as the Australian Barramundi Farmers Association, the Northern Territory Seafood Council and Indigenous Australian groups. This, in turn, has taken him from some of the most remote parts of Australia to the major cities, and abroad to destinations including Madagascar and Malaysia.

Mud crab lessons

He says one of his most valuable learning experiences about the complexity of the fisheries sector came while taking a break from his position with the Northern Territory Government after 17 years there. He had been approached by a group of mud crabbers in Darwin looking to refine the operation of their business, Sea King Seafoods, to break into new markets, build product quality protocols and identify new areas for development.

“I learnt that the industry is not just catching fish. There is catching, but also processing, transporting, distributing, supplying the logistics, transport operators, opportunities to work with recreational fishers and of course Indigenous Australians.

“The industry is so broad and diverse and seeing the connections and opportunities means that there is always a whole range of areas to work with.”

He loved the way a hard day’s work of packing, sorting and delivering crabs would end with a clean warehouse, a job finished and a sense of achievement with invoices sent off. His enjoyment of this project-based work set him on course as a consultant, rather than returning to the public sector. The focus of his business was to bridge the gaps between policy and practice.

“There was a lack of connection between industry and agency, research and management and I’m actually quite good at that,” he says. “In the department I learnt the value of good preparation and when I went to Sea King Seafoods I learnt the value of selling your ideas and thinking big and engaging with people.”

Bridging worlds

Much of his most recent work has focused on working with Indigenous communities. When the Northern Territory’s Northern Land Council was looking to engage with the commercial fishing sector in the mid-2000s, Chris Calogeras took on a role to help make this happen.

Then, as part of an FRDC project, he travelled to New Zealand with a group that included government staff, traditional owners and commercial and recreational fishers to learn about changes to Maori ownership of commercial fisheries. This had gone from almost zero to a 50 per cent share of New Zealand’s commercial fisheries following the settlement of claims for breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, the 1840 agreement between Maori leaders and the British Crown which established British sovereignty over New Zealand.

On his return to Australia several events took place that led to greater engagement with Indigenous groups in the fishing and aquaculture sectors. A 2008 decision by the High Court called the Blue Mud Bay decision had given Indigenous land councils in the Northern Territory the authority to grant or deny access to waters over their lands as far as the low-water mark. Chris Calogeras says the decision led to numerous negotiations that required Indigenous input – but there was no real mechanism for achieving that.

At the same time, the FRDC identified an under-investment in the Indigenous part of its portfolio and established its Indigenous Reference Group (IRG). As someone with experience dealing with both the fishing sector and Indigenous groups, Chris Calogeras was appointed as the IRG’s executive officer.

His own heritage is Greek and Polish, although he is sometimes assumed to have Indigenous Australian origins due to the role he holds. He is adamant that he cannot speak for Indigenous Australians. Rather, it is his role to help make connections between Indigenous groups and others.

“I get a bit upset sometimes because people think that by having me there they have an Indigenous voice. They haven’t; far from it. But I can provide high-level strategic information that the IRG has developed.”

He says his ultimate aim is to make sure that he is no longer needed in the role. “It is part of my job to make sure I’m not there long term. I’ll be really disappointed when that time comes as I love working with the group, but it’s for the right reason and is a good thing. What I really love to see at the end of it all is that the people you’ve worked with are empowered and they take control.”

The scope of the IRG is to ensure that fishing and seafood industry-focused research, development and extension helps deliver improved economic, environmental and social benefits to Indigenous people. It does this by providing advice to the FRDC on strategic issues relevant to Indigenous RD&E in the fishing and seafood industry.

“The lessons that I learnt way back about engaging with people were very relevant. So, it is about engaging with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, but also about engaging with the commercial sector, the rec sector, the researchers and the agencies to actually have conversations because you can’t live in a silo.

Productive negotiations

“It’s about getting people to work together, and helping them to understand what they share. Part of it is making sure that the people who feel that they haven’t fully got the outcome that they want have been listened to. So it isn’t always about getting people to 100 per cent agree, it is about getting to a point where people can say, ‘I can live with that’,” he says.

He credits the FRDC’s National Seafood Industry Leadership Program (NSILP) in 2004 with developing his skills to tackle these problems. He is now a co-facilitator of NSILP and has the opportunity to hear the stories of people who are benefiting from the work he does. His passion for the sector and talent for productive and sincere engagement has had a tangible impact on a new generation.

He says there are some serious challenges ahead for the major groups he works with, such as biosecurity, country of origin labelling, a lack of new blood in the industry and improving Indigenous Australians’ role in the industry. However, he is confident that the fisheries sector can continue to grow and build community support.

“I think the industry has got the capacity to gain pre-eminence again,” he says, “but everyone needs to work together. If we start arguing and bickering and picking each other off, it’s a slippery slope, but if we work together we can all have a really bright future.” 

More information

Chris Calogeras, www.c-aid.com.au