Western Australia’s growing aquaculture industry is revitalising small tourism towns on the state’s south coast by providing an alternative to seasonal work.
Within a decade, aquaculture has become the biggest employer in the seaside communities of Bremer Bay and Augusta.
Their story reflects the broader aspirations of the industry and the State Government, which is looking to the sector to help fulfil its promise of 30,000 new regional jobs by 2023-24.
Government stimulus has provided the foundation for the industry’s growth, but further private investment is needed to help other coastal communities share the benefits.
When Jake Poad left a local farming community near Bremer Bay to go study marine science in the city, he never thought his career path would lead him home.
He is now the production manager of 888 Abalone’s hatchery and terrestrial abalone farm.
“I never really thought I’d end up in Bremer Bay or that there were many opportunities for my degree here,” he said.
“Most of the employees are local people that have been here for a while and want to stay here, so it’s really good for the community.”
The company employs about 23 full-time staff in a town of 500.
Shire of Jerramungup president Robert Lester said a lot of work in Bremer Bay was seasonal and relied on tourism.
For that reason, the year-round employment offered by aquaculture has provided a much-needed economic boost.
“The industries that don’t operate on a seasonal basis create other offshoots,” Mr Lester said.
“If someone wants to run a coffee shop they’re not going to run it for three months of the year or six months of the year.
“The company is talking of expanding which will be huge for the town. It’s win-win, I’d say.”
‘Gold rush food’
In the south-west town of Augusta, about 500 kilometres west, locals are telling a similar story.
In five years, ASX-listed company Ocean Grown Abalone (OGA) has expanded from just a handful of workers to become the biggest employer in Augusta.
OGA’s sea ranching technique uses hatchery-bred juvenile abalone to seed 10,000 concrete artificial reefs placed in the ocean.
In the last few years the company has moved from a construction phase into an operation phase and is expected to ramp-up production in coming years.
More than 95 percent of the farmed abalone grown in the town’s pristine waters is exported to Asian markets.
OGA’s managing director and founder Brad Adams said the combination of Government support, market demand, and pristine coastal locations had created fresh investment appetite in WA’s burgeoning aquaculture industry.
“Abalone is one of those gold rush food species. They’re highly revered in the Asian markets. They really love Australian produce,” Mr Adams said.
“In the next 20-30 years this won’t be a unique story, it will just be the business that happens on the coast.”
OGA is also planning to build a $30 million onshore abalone hatchery and land-based abalone farm at Esperance in WA’s south-east.
In Bremer Bay, 888 Abalone also has designs for future expansion.
The company purchased its facility nine years ago after the previous owner went into administration.
Its managing director, Craig Kestel, said in many ways the success of the industry’s new entrants was owed to the struggles of its pioneers.
“There’s opportunity to scale up and get investment. We just need to build the foundations then hopefully we can build the second story on top,” he said.
WA mining billionaire Andrew Forrest’s agribusiness company Harvest Road Group has also been investing in aquaculture operations as far north as Carnarvon and as far south as Albany.
An industry precipice
WA’s $75 million aquaculture and wild-catch mollusc sectors have been doing business for decades.
However, in recent years, the State Government has spent a lot of money trying to get aquaculture afloat in its construction of a multi-million-dollar hatchery at Albany and creating a raft of grants and development zones.
Aquaculture Council WA’s chief executive Tina Thorne said it had brought the industry to the precipice of major expansion.
But more private investment and community support will provide the formative push over the edge.
“It’s also a competitive environment with the commercial and recreational fishing sectors,” Ms Thorne said.
“We need community support so those waters can be made available for aquaculture production.”
A draft strategic plan for the aquaculture industry is currently awaiting approval from WA Fisheries Minister David Kelly.
Ms Thorne expects the plan to have some tangible and viable recommendations for industry development and regional employment.