Opportunities for expansion in northern Australia

With potenial new industries ripe for development in northern Australia, collaborative efforts will be key to success.

By Rebecca Thyer

Sweet-tasting and fast-growing, tropical rock oysters have been enjoyed for generations by Indigenous Australians.

The oysters occur naturally along northern Australian coastlines and there is potential for them to be farmed. A collaborative research and development project is looking at how to bring these native delicacies to new consumers.

The project will address the most significant technical and regulatory issues challenging the development of northern Australia’s fledgling tropical rock oyster industry. If successful, it could help create 500 new aquaculture jobs and add more than $217 million in production value to the region over the next 20 years. This would transform northern Australia’s aquaculture sector and economy.

Leading fisheries and aquaculture researchers from the Northern Territory and Western Australia are working together on this task via a three-year, $4.1 million project supported by the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia (CRCNA).

This project, says aquaculture specialist Jennifer Cobcroft at James Cook University (JCU), is a great example of the potential opportunities that exist in northern Australia. It also represents how the broader fisheries sector, government agencies, Indigenous communities and research providers can work together to capture and help emerging industries.

Situational analysis

Jennifer Cobcroft led a large collaborative team that investigated northern Australia’s aquaculture potential, preparing a situational analysis report for the CRCNA published in May 2020. The research found the region has multiple advantages. These include:

  • high-quality land and water resources suitable for aquaculture in remote areas;
  • a tropical climate supporting fast growth;
  • several native species amenable to farming;
  • a strong environmental and cultural provenance story; and
  • close proximity to large export markets in Asia.

However, these advantages are coupled with challenges related to biosecurity, complex regulation and infrastructure issues (see breakout story below).

Jennifer Cobcroft and the project team discussed these findings with 85 stakeholders at an FRDC-supported workshop in Rockhampton earlier this year. The aim was to consider any gaps in the recommendations and propose ways to enable expansion. Importantly, the workshop demonstrated that research priorities are already well defined within specific industry association strategic plans.

Tropical Rock Oyster farm

Tropical rock oyster farming trials underway in the Pilbara with industry partner Maxima Rock Oyster Company.
Photo: Western Australian Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development.

Production bottlenecks

A reliable supply of oyster spat is a significant hurdle both for conducting research and for boosting production within the fledgling aquaculture operations already underway.

Michel Bermudes is the principal research scientist for marine shellfish with the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) in WA. He is working with his team to develop reliable technology for hatchery production of tropical rock oysters in Perth, as part of a CRCNA-funded project.

“We are working on two species of blacklip rock oysters: the Western Blacklip (Saccostrea cucullata – lineage A) and the Northern Blacklip (Saccostrea cucullata – lineage J, also known as Saccostrea echinata).

“Each species brings its own sets of challenges and opportunities. Lineage J oysters are large and fast-growing compared to the smaller lineage A species that has a natural favourable cup shape and conditions well for market. Importantly, because they are different, they are likely to provide a different consumer experience.”

The work is still looking to surmount a number of challenges and it will be at least a year or two before significant numbers of spat are produced, Michel Bermudes says.

Once reliable protocols are developed, this might allow interstate biosecure hatcheries to supply spat to Queensland. Currently, the only commercial producer in northern Australia is in Queensland, based at Bowen in the state’s north.

Previous attempts to produce spat from broodstock of the tropical rock oyster species sent from the Bowen farm failed as a result of the challenges of working with new species. The lack of spat continues to limit commercial production, which is currently relying on wild spat collection.

A commercial hatchery in southern Queensland has been able to successfully produce tropical rock oyster spat, but biosecurity restrictions prevented it from being sent north. These production issues were highlighted at the Rockhampton workshop to assess the situational analysis report. Participants said they could be addressed by creating northern Queensland’s own hatchery.

Tropical rock oyster researcher at JCU, Jan Strugnell, says direct support for the emerging Queensland tropical oyster industry is critical. “The industry is at a vulnerable stage of development now and support of Australia’s only commercial tropical rock oyster farmer is vital for Queensland and other jurisdictions.

“All business development endeavours, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, will be constrained by spat supply. Oyster hatcheries require high-quality water supply, specific infrastructure, a high level of biosecurity and hygiene, and skilled technical staff for successful spat production.”

Despite these challenges, Jennifer Cobcroft says tropical rock oysters are now on the ‘radar’ for northern Australia, which is a positive.

“At the moment, there is some funding support for Tropical Rock Lobster and marine fish development.” These include Coral Trout (Plectropomus leopardus), Cobia (Rachycentron canadum) and Groupers (Epinephelus spp.).

“We’d like to see this continue and other industries supported, including Redclaw (Cherax quadricarinatus) and various species of sea cucumbers. These emerging sectors have active investment driving development. With additional RD&E they can overcome bottlenecks to add substantial value in the north.”

Jennifer Cobcroft says both established and emerging industries offer great opportunities that could be particularly important in a post-COVID-19 world. With an increased focus on sustainably produced, local food, they would provide new employment pathways in regional areas of northern Australia.


Leadership in action

The top three aquaculture industries in northern Australia – Barramundi, prawns and Pearl Oysters – are diverse and their opportunities and challenges reflect this.

The CRCNA recently completed an aquaculture industry situational analysis, which highlights each industry’s worth in northern Australia and its key challenges.

The CRCNA defines ‘Northern Australia’ as all of the Northern Territory, and those parts of Queensland and WA above and directly below or intersecting the Tropic of Capricorn. It also includes Gladstone, Carnarvon and Exmouth, as well as the local government areas of Meekatharra and Wiluna in WA.

The production values are for 2017-18, the only statistics officially released at the time of the study.

Barramundi

The Barramundi industry is valued at $74.8 million annually and employs 180 people across WA, NT and Queensland. Its top two challenges are regulatory burdens and environmental risks such as extreme weather events.

Prawns

The prawn industry is valued at $72.3 million annually and employs 220 people across Queensland. Its top two challenges are the absence of a Tiger Prawn breeding program
and, with industry expanding, broodstock quality and supply.

Pearls

The Pearl Oyster industry is valued at $70.3 million annually and employs 70 people in WA. Its top two challenges are environmental risks and disease. Challenges common across aquaculture sectors included the risk of disease outbreak, recruiting and retaining staff, and the cost and reliability of power.

Recommendations

The report made seven recommendations to address these cross-industry, pan-northern issues, proposing engagement by government agencies, industry, research providers and others.
The first is to bolster biosecurity. This could be done at the border through a review of policy, risk assessments and R&D programs. Other tasks would be to increase pathogen understanding, documented risks, transmission pathways and practical surveillance. It could also include establishing effective structures to develop high health lines for key production species.

Facilitating infrastructure development for key Aquaculture Development Hubs is also a recommendation. This would see northern Australian aquaculture industry supported in the supply chain capacity to underpin market development and access – both domestically and internationally.

Building aquaculture as a means for Indigenous economic development and independence is also a recommendation, as is building skills to meet industry growth. This would close the gap in demand for skilled personnel with 2340 direct new jobs, at a range of skill levels, created by 2030.

Regulatory-wise, another recommendation is building stronger and adaptive governance of the northern Australian aquaculture industry.

And finally, RD&E needs to be focused on industry outcomes that are aligned with national, jurisdiction and industry association plans.

Map

The area of interest for the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia (CRCNA). Source: CRCNA.


FRDC Research Codes: 2017-061, 2018-115, 2019-096

More information

Jennifer Cobcroft, jennifer.cobcroft@jcu.edu.au