Fresh North Queensland prawns on table

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Pacific Reef Fisheries general manager John Moloney, who oversees a 96 hectare prawn and fish farm near Ayr, perceives big things are in store for the industry.

By Jessica Johnston

Mr Moloney said the prawn farm had been operational for about 20 years and plans were progressing for a major expansion to create another 260 hectares of ponds on a farm at Guthalungra.

“That will be a very big farm by Australian standards,” Mr Moloney said.

“We’ve been through a lot of hurdles to get the permits, and we’re in the final detailed design stages.”

Mr Moloney said Pacific Reef Fisheries currently produced about 1000 tonnes of prawns, and 100 tonnes of Cobia annually, and output would increase when the new farm was online.

Construction at the Guthalungra site will begin late this year or in early 2019, and would take up to six years to complete.

“We should be able to produce about 3000 tonnes out of that farm, so it’s large. Some of the major fisheries like the Gulf of Carpenteria are less than that.

“It’s a bit of a turning point for the industry, it has been quite stagnant now for a number of years, but there’s a few major projects on the cards now.”

Mr Moloney said he believed the industry overcoming regularory hurdles and environmental concerns, coupled with demand for the product, was driving the turn around.

“The market has definitely picked up, the prices are better, production systems have improved and farms have got better tonnages per hectare coming out now compared to 10 years ago, so the profitibility is there and it’s attractive to investors.

“There is some Australian grown preference… particularly with seafood, people do like to know they’ve got good quality Australian product.”

Mr Moloney said protein prices had increased generally in the last five years, and prawns were no exception.

“We get a bit over $20/kg and the prices have gone up $2-$3 in the last five years, so it’s not a big percentage increase but that’s a big difference for us.”

Mr Moloney said his company had a supply arrangement with Coles, so most of the prawns went to the supermarket chain.

However, once the expansion is complete, they will have to source alternative, additional markets.

Mr Moloney’s business was the first in Australia to farm Cobia. When they started about eight years ago, it was a relatively unknown fish but a niche market has emerged.

Dubbed the ‘wagyu of the sea,’ the fish is marketed to high-end restruants and they is served in about six establishments in each of Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.

“It’s a really fast growing fish, and by good fortune, it has really good eating qualities. They call it the wagyu of the sea, you get that marbelling through the flesh and that fat gives it that nice flavour, so the chefs love it it’s something different, very high quality and very versatile.

They breed their own prawns at a hatchery at Guthalungra, where they remain for a month, before being delivered to the Ayr site.

After six months in the pond, they are harvested and processed in the onsite facility, before they are sold either fresh or frozen to market later in the year to ensure they don’t flood the market.

The harvest goes from Christmas through unitl May, when the ponds are restocked from the hatchery.
Mr Moloney said while aquaculture was growing at a slow rate, he believed it had the capacity to become a billion dollar industry.

“I think we’re on the cusp of a fairly major expansion. If prawns are worth around $80-$90 million a year and barramundi about $40-$50 million, to me there is no reason why it couldn’t be five to ten times that, so that’s a billion dollar industry.

“It would become a major industry taking it up there with cane and cattle.

Mr Moloney said a comparatively small amount of land area was required for aquaculture, adding to its growth potential.

“A lot would have to happen to get to that scale but it’s certainly do-able. Definitely the North is high on the radar as an option to do that.”

Agricultural Industry Development and Fisheries Minister Mark Furner agreed aquaculture was a priority area for future growth.

“I have visited countless fish and prawn farms up and down the coast, including spending an afternoon at the Pacific Reef operation in the Burdekin,” Mr Furner said.

“Queensland aquaculture employs more than 530 full-time equivalent workers and the gross value of production represents 38 per cent of the total state value of fisheries production.

“The industry also supports a substantial number of off-farm services which have flow-on benefits for employment and regional development.

“As a government, we are progressing with the identification and promotion of aquaculture development areas to help grow the industry in a sustainable way.”

Mr Furner said the government was also calling for expressions of interest to establish a $10 million Regional Export Distribution Centre, which would allow rapid access of produce to key international markets.

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