Prawn Politics (ABC Landline Sunday July 19, 2015)

The politics of prawn farming

PIP COURTNEY, PRESENTER: Despite insatiable world demand for prawns, a new prawn farm has not been approved on Australia’s East Coast in nearly 15 years. The industry blames what it says is a maze of complex, expensive and lengthy environmental regulations, overseen by different Federal and State Government departments and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Prawn farmers say if the approval system is streamlined, it will unlock millions of dollars in investment and create hundreds of jobs in regional areas, emulating the huge success of Tasmania’s Atlantic salmon industry. Amongst the crowd wolfing down seafood is a small group of federal Queensland MPs dubbed “the warriors”. They’re battling against what they see as excessively tough environmental rules for Australia’s prawn farmers. No new prawn farms in Australia for 15 years.

BARRY O’SULLIVAN, LNP SENATOR: Shocking. Shocking indictment on any government.

WARREN ENTSCH, LNP MP: Well, to me it’s bloody stupidity and it really, again, highlights the need here to raise awareness.

PIP COURTNEY: Backing Warren Entsch is chief warrior, Senator Barry O’Sullivan. The pair want the rules for prawn farmers to be simpler, quicker and cheaper. And in their crosshairs are state and federal governments and the body which oversees the Great Barrier Reef, which they say together are stifling prawn farm development with their hardline approach.

BARRY O’SULLIVAN: So they’re very much setting the bars far too high and that’s the wrong way to regulate an industry and we need to do something about that.

PIP COURTNEY: If you do manage to do something about that, will that unlock millions of dollars in investment and create thousands of jobs?

BARRY O’SULLIVAN: No question. No question.

PIP COURTNEY: Australia’s farmed prawn industry is small, but it’s desperate to grow so it can take a bigger share of the 55,000-tonne domestic market.

JOHN MOLONEY, PACIFIC REEF FISHERIES: We’re 5,000 tonnes. I’d love to see it grow to 20,000 tonnes or more in Queensland. So, to get to that scale we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and hundreds of millions of dollars in production each year.

NICK MOORE, GOLD COAST MARINE AQUACULTURE: The Great Reef Marine Park Authority are very concerned that any of the water going into their catchment will eventually or potentially impact on the reef. And because prawn farms are a point source discharge – we have a discharge point and a pipe, if you like, that can be monitored, that can be assessed with volume and with its contents – we’re just an easy target, basically. You can’t do that with a cane farm, you can’t do that with cattle, you can’t do that with a banana farm, for argument’s sake. It’s good that we do have a tough process to go through, but it can’t be a process that sends you broke or sends investors away.

PIP COURTNEY: The industry’s been pushing for regulatory relief for over a decade. It thought it had a strong case too, for in 2004 the Productivity Commission conceded Australia’s aquaculture regulations were unnecessarily complex. In 2013, the Queensland Government realised the torturous system was driving away investors, so asked the state’s competition authority to recommend reform. The competition authority’s interim report, released last year, makes a number of recommendations to encourage investment. Its final report is done, but Agriculture Minister Bill Byrne has not released it. The prawn farmers’ case was made yet again last month with the release of the white paper on Developing Northern Australia, which acknowledged investment was dependent on cutting red tape. The catch is the 20-year timeframe on the white paper recommendations.

NICK MOORE: We talk about regional Australia needing jobs and the white paper creating jobs, that’s what we’re doing already; we’re actually ahead of the game. Aquaculture is the largest single growing primary industry in the world, except in Australia. We are behind and yet we should be world leaders in this. What I get asked is what governments can do to help us and all I’ve ever said is, “Understand what we do,” and I really don’t think they do.

PIP COURTNEY: This year, prawn farmers reached peak frustration, so headed to Canberra to make their case. It probably helped they took prawns with them. On barbecue duty was prawn farmer Nick Moore. He says the Australian industry is the cleanest in the world and should be celebrated and assisted, not hamstrung.

NICK MOORE, PRAWN FARMER: We’ve got some of the best water quality in the world, we’ve got the best management techniques, science, feed companies. We’ve got every single thing in Australia. What we haven’t got is government support. There’s something like 46 scientific papers out there from CSIRO saying that no-one’s done anything wrong yet. So, we just battle for this to be treated like the kind of true green, environmentally-friendly business that we actually are. And we’re just not treated that way and it’s wrong.

PIP COURTNEY: Matt West manages Australian Prawn Farms at Ilbilbie near Mackay. The company has applied to expand its operation. He, like all the farmers who went to Canberra, accept lobbying is now part of their job.

MATT WEST, AUST. PRAWN FARMERS ASSOC.: We’re not a dirty industry at all. In fact quite the opposite. The licence restrictions that are currently imposed on prawn farms are the strictest in the world and, you know, quite rightly so. We want a fair go. We just want to be recognised that we are one and the same of the other agriculture industries that don’t tend to have the same restrictions as what we do.

PIP COURTNEY: The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority declined Landline’s request for an interview, but in a statement said it has no concern with prawn farming provided it was ecologically sustainable and met water quality guidelines. It says given the reef’s importance, rigorous assessment of any activities that may affect it was justified. Warren Entsch chairs the Joint Select Committee on developing Northern Australia. He believes the North can be an economic powerhouse.

WARREN ENTSCH: The CSIRO have told us that there’s 1.2 million hectares of suitable land right around the northern seaboard of Australia and so little of that’s being used at the moment for aquaculture and it just doesn’t make sense. On farming, if you’re lucky to get $200 for a hectare. On aquaculture, you can get $250,000 a hectare!

PIP COURTNEY: The Productivity Commission highlighted the nightmarish approvals process back in 2004. Well, the Pacific Reef prawn farm is living it. They’re Exhibit A in why the system needs changing. Based at Ayr, south of Townsville, Pacific Reef is Australia’s second-biggest prawn farm. The 100 hectares of ponds produces 1,000 tonnes a year. 14 years ago, the company, owned by Melbourne multimillionaire businessman Nick Mitris, applied to build a new $60 million 250-pond farm at nearby Guthalungra. If approved, it would be the country’s biggest. The Queensland Government declared it a significant project, but that didn’t help. This paper mountain later, Guthalungra still hasn’t been approved.

JOHN MOLONEY, PACIFIC REEF FISHERIES: It’s basically 14 years worth of investment in environmental impact statements, research reports for us to justify that the farm can operate with very little environmental impact at all.

PIP COURTNEY: And how much does the Marine Park Authority charge you to look at the documents?

JOHN MOLONEY: For them to assess our approval, it’s $100,000 application fee.

PIP COURTNEY: The company has spent $1.7 million meeting the requirements from various government agencies and departments, but they don’t talk to each other.

JOHN MOLONEY: The three different agencies with the three different sets of bureaucrats that are wanting different things, they all want different reports. What we need is for one agency to regulate that particular aspect. And we can’t water down the environmental protection point of view. That needs to be a very big part of it, but the investors need the confidence that they can go to one agency and get the permits from that one agency for their water discharge.

PIP COURTNEY: John Moloney says the domestic market can take more prawns and the opportunities in China alone are massive. So he’s frustrated looking at a map of Queensland, where so many sites are suited to prawn farming. And unlike the billion-dollar farm proposed for the remote Kimberley coast, these sites are near labour, ports, roads and power. This is Guthalungra, where Pacific Reef wants to build its new farm. A kilometre from the coast, it’s home to the company’s hatchery and some cattle.

JOHN MOLONEY: Probably generates a few hundred dollars per hectare at the moment. A well-operated farm will generate a few hundred thousand dollars per hectare. It’s basically become a dream now to see it happen and it is getting close.

PIP COURTNEY: Much of the $60 million building cost would be spent locally and when operational, 100 full-time and 100 casuals would be hired. When complete, it would produce 3,000 tonnes of prawns a year. Seawater would be piped in, run through the ponds, then a series of water cleaning systems before going back to the ocean. John Moloney says the company’s operation at Ayr is proof prawn farming can be reef-friendly.

JOHN MOLONEY: We’ve got a full-time crew of seven water quality people managed by an environmental officer, all university trained, very technical, got all the equipment to make sure they cannot just check the water in our growing ponds, but through the whole treatment system, incoming water, everything, just to make sure that we’re managing our system from start to finish.

PIP COURTNEY: Before the pond’s water is returned to the ocean, it goes to a settling pond, then to a sand filter, then a 23-hectare man-made mangrove wetland.

JOHN MOLONEY: Basically, the water passes through that system, uses the nutrients to grow the mangroves and it’s absolutely fantastic to see it in the state it’s in now. It’s been going for 15 years now and the fish life and the bird life that live in that system is fantastic to see.

PIP COURTNEY: And have you ever had any incidents?

JOHN MOLONEY: No. No. We’ve been operating here for 20 years. We’ve got a fantastic track record and that’s standing us in really good stead now to start moving ahead with growing our industry.

PIP COURTNEY: Although environment groups have repeatedly warned of dangers of agricultural run-off, they’ve seldom singled out the Australian prawn farming industry for criticism. Rocky de Nys is a Professor of Aquaculture at James Cook University in Townsville. He agrees Queensland’s prawn farms have little impact on the reef.

ROCKY DE NYS, JAMES COOK UNIVERSITY: There are very sophisticated studies using isotope tracers that can see where the nitrogen goes and very little goes any further than those mangrove systems.

PIP COURTNEY: Still, getting approval is incredibly difficult. But this new water-cleaning system being trialled at Pacific Reef is being hailed a game changer. MBD Energy, a company exploring commercial applications for algae, is using algae, or sea lettuce, to clean the water.

JOHN MOLONEY: The reason we can get those nutrients from very, very low down as low as what we’re getting them is because of the growth rate of this product. It triples in weight in five days. I can’t think of any other agricultural product that grows that fast. In this very small area, they’ll put 300 kilos in on a Monday and pull a tonne out on a Friday. It’s crazy.

PIP COURTNEY: The sea lettuce can be harvested and sold as food for both humans and livestock.

ROCKY DE NYS: The process can bring the water back to the quality that it came from the ocean, so to background levels and we’ve demonstrated that. It’s a low-technology, low-cost, high-output system that delivers value from waste and that’s a tremendously powerful tool to have.

PIP COURTNEY: But the industry says expansion is dependent on change and that all starts here in Canberra.

BARRY O’SULLIVAN: Anything that can be done in a sustainable manner, anything that attracts investment into regional communities, it’s got my undivided attention. So I’ve committed myself to this mob of producers that I will do whatever’s in my power to do that.

PIP COURTNEY: The man the warriors and prawn farmers need to convince is Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt. He oversees the EPBC, or Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the Australian Government’s key piece of environmental legislation. Mr Hunt didn’t eat and leave; he had some good news: the Marine Park Authority liked the sea lettuce trial.

GREG HUNT, ENVIRONMENT MINISTER: When the toughest cop on the beat who’s responsible for protecting the reef is excited about new technology, I think that’s extremely good news for the reef and it’s good news for Australian farmers. My job is to make sure that water quality continues to improve, but this is a pathway to the future both for the environment and also for feeding many, many happy Australians.

PIP COURTNEY: But prawn farmers weren’t celebrating, as the minister would not comment on the need for a simpler regulatory process. And, as to his claim the algae system’s ready to go, it’s not. It’s yet to be commercialised, no farm has adopted it and they won’t until the cost is clear.

NICK MOORE: Over 30 years of prawn farming I’ve listened to many ministers both state and federal say things that we want to hear. I’d love to see one of them follow through for the first time.

PIP COURTNEY: A disillusioned Nick Moore says the algae development won’t speed up Gold Coast Aquaculture’s application to double the size of its 30-hectare farm at Port Douglas.

NICK MOORE: I’d expect it to be optimistically two years, conservatively, closer to five. There’ll be a lot of negotiation between ourselves, between the regulators, even the local councils before that’s approved. Nothing in prawn farming works very quickly.

PIP COURTNEY: Nick Moore’s urged the Queensland Government and Minister Hunt to look to Tasmania for inspiration. The state’s salmon industry, which didn’t exist in the mid-’80s, is now worth $500 million.

NICK MOORE: The salmon industry in Tasmania had two very, very important things. They had the support of the state and they didn’t have the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority on their back. We’ve got everything we need to make aquaculture – not just prawn farming, aquaculture, one of the biggest Queensland prime industries there is.

PIP COURTNEY: If the Canberra prawn-fest doesn’t work, the industry’s next hope is the Queensland Competition Authority. Its report recommending change is done and on the desk of the Agriculture Minister.

JOHN MOLONEY: The penny’s dropped that this is a good industry. The penny’s dropped that this is something that would be great for Australia’s future. Um, whether that translates into addressing those regulatory issues, we’ll have to see. It’s really – we’ve reached that point now, you can just feel that it’s primed and ready to go. We just need that little push over the line from the regulators, give those investors the confidence that they can do it.

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