From the west to the world: Geraldton Fishermen's Co-operative

Michael Cavanagh with CEO Matt Rutter

Western Australia is known for many things – its stunning landscapes, beautiful beaches, the WACA and its much-loved AFL teams. It’s also home to Australia’s largest fishery, Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-operative, a full-service operation taking its members’ daily catch of western rock lobsters and transporting them around the globe.

In this interview by rural journalist Michael Cavanagh with CEO Matt Rutter, you’ll discover more about this proud Australian co-operative that’s over 70 years old and hear what’s involved in bringing premium seafood to international and local markets. You’ll also learn why the co-operative model is the ideal structure for this business, driving a purpose that extends beyond just profits.

Read more about how Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-operative has been proudly supporting WA’s fishing industry for over 70 years

Matt Rutter photo by Tony McDonough
Matt Rutter, photo by Tony McDonough

Listen to S2 E11

S2 E11 transcript

Melina [00:00:03] Australian seafood is world renowned who can resist a plate of fresh prawns or  rock lobsters, a co-op in the country’s west has been involved in fishing since the 1950s. Hello, I’m Melina Morrison, CEO of the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals. And welcome to our regular podcast, where we take a look at co-operatives in regional Australia. At a time when there’s renewed interest in such enterprises, Michael Kavanaugh wasn’t able to take to the water, but he caught up with Geraldton Fishermen Co-operative CEO Matt Rutter, who has his hands on the tiller, coordinating around 20 facilities that spread over a thousand kilometres.

Michael [00:00:45] Melina, the co-op, like many, started with a handful of those directly involved in primary production, in this case some men with trawlers. Now it’s grown to be the biggest exporter of rock lobsters in the world over the decades, as Matt Rutter explained, the co-op, which is 100% owned by those who take to the sea, has been able to shift with the changing tastes of mainly overseas palates.

Matt [00:01:23] Yes, it was quite a broad economy up in Geraldton these days. So it’s part of the mid-west region of Western Australia. One of the biggest agricultural exports out of there by far is grain. So GBH, another great cooperative, has one of their four major grain terminals out of Geraldton and they export everything from wheat, barley, canola and other grains out of there and it’s a huge production area, very, very good growing, you know, and in good seasons, very good growing area around there for grain. There’s also a lot of growing niche food businesses out of there as well. So there’s honey and it’s actually one of the biggest areas, as I understand it, for things like tomatoes and cucumbers as well so yes, very, very big in the food space. But also there’s a lot going on out there around hydrogen, there’s a lot of mining activity and those sorts of things that go out through the port as well as any number of other seafood operators as well as us. So it’s quite a broad economy now and a growing tourism sector as well, which we’re quite involved in up in that region as well.

Michael [00:02:40] Good spread.

Matt [00:02:41] Yes, it’s a nice, diversified little town these days not so little.

Michael [00:02:48] You know, the co-op itself, it’s been going since 1950. What was it a group of fishermen that just got together and said; we’ve got to market our catch?

Matt [00:02:57] Yes, so as with a lot of genesis stories for co-operatives, it was a group of fishermen, who felt like they weren’t getting a fair deal from the middlemen, the traders, they weren’t getting the information that they needed in fair prices. So they decided to band together and form a co-operative. And so they started out of Geraldton and the basic principle of the co-operative has stayed the same since those days. We’re basically a service provider to our fishers to take deliveries, store, handle, move and market their product to customers around the world. And that core business, like a good co-operative, has stayed, we’ve stayed true to that over the last 70 years and in that time we’ve grown from just being Geraldton-centric so that’s servicing fishers off the Abrolhos Islands, which is about 60 kilometres off the coast of Geraldton and the surrounding areas of Geraldton. We’ve now grown to the point where we across the full breadth of the fishery between north of Kalbarri, in the north and south of Augusta in the south.

Michael [00:04:08] When you started those 1950s because up until COVID came along you were very export orientated even then was that demand for West Australian seafood? Did the guys that got together initially; were they looking at overseas even then?

Matt [00:04:25] Yes, so the main market has always been because we’re actually Australia’s largest fishery, as much as the locals love our crays, there’s just not enough locals to eat them. So we export at the moment our quota is about 6.6 million kilos a year and that’s caught all-year round. And back in those days, they were catching very good catches as well relative to the local population. So initially the main market was the USA back in the ’50s and there was actually a big canning, believe it or not, the product used to be canned a lot as well and it’s been used as rations for army over the years.

Michael [00:05:10] Is crayfish in the can for the army, as rations, they’re doing okay?

Matt [00:05:15] Yes, well, even before then, they used to feed it to prisoners, how things have changed. So, yes, so the US market was big and then over the years we’ve seen a number of markets come and go like but have always been there so the US and Japan and then more recently China.

Michael [00:05:37] The processing is that’s still continuing in the cannery area?

Matt [00:05:41] No, so not we’re not canning but we are certainly processing. So we can we sell a number of different product lines, anything from lives, so we export live to countries around the world by air and we also process frozen. So process, frozen, the whole cooked, whole raw, tails, split product and so forth.

Michael [00:06:05] The tails is quite a lucrative pattern if I understand, the US which was that initial overseas market, initially they were buying cans but they became quite a big area for the tails as well, didn’t it?

Matt [00:06:17] Yes and in fact they are still our largest market for tails today. So there’s a big market through the Casinos and those sorts of places and right across, so we are distributing our tails right across the US. So it’s still one of our major and most important markets by far.

Michael [00:06:36] And then from the US everyone automatically thinks export of Australian seafood, whether be on the East Coast or the West Coast, into the Asian market that was the next place that you looked at, wasn’t it, after the US.

Matt [00:06:51] Yes that’s right, so Taiwan and Japan sort of followed the US, so we were exporting large volumes up there, frozen, every single year and then from there in the early 2000s to sort of the last decade or so, China has surpassed all of the other markets and has been importing large volumes from us.

Michael [00:07:17] The crays were very much the first part of your market and what you’re selling then what have you done to broaden what seafood is available out of the catchment area?

Matt [00:07:28] Yes, so we still very much focused on Western rock lobster and that certainly keeps us busy. We have in recent times brought on other products through the supply chain where supports that core business of rock lobster. So we’re doing things like snow crab, crystal crab, king crab. We are doing small volumes of abalone and scallops and the like. But in terms of volume, it’s quite small. And really the way that we view those and those products is we will participate in those markets if we can help reduce the unit cost for our lobster fishers. So we don’t do it just to make it profitable to trade, it’s really how can we use the assets of all of our business, of our members’ business in a way which is going to increase throughput and ultimately reduce their overall unit cost, but still very much where we are very focused on the Western Rock lobster and that will always be the main part of our business because it is just every day we receive an average of 11 tonnes of crayfish every single day of the year and at certain times of the year that can go up to 40 or 50 tonnes a day as well. So we have to we have to remain true to our to that core business and to our members, which is the Western Rock lobster and not get too distracted in that core task.

Michael [00:08:56] In today’s Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals’ Meet the Farmers podcast, I’m Michael Kavanagh and I’m talking to the CEO of Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-op, Matt Rutter. Matt with the co-op itself and it started off in the ’50s with I suppose a group of fishers that didn’t really like the cut that the middleman was getting. What’s the structure of this co-op? We see so many different co-ops. Some are very intertwined with the community. They put money back into it, others run it so that there’s a very good deal an operation for its members. How does yours operate?

Matt [00:09:35] Yes, it’s quite simple, so we as a co-operative, as I said earlier, we provide service of receiving crayfish off the beach from our members moving that product through to market and selling it. So every single day we provide a daily price to our fishers on the beach, which is a direct reflection of the true market in the in whatever market we’re selling to that’s a direct reflection of the price. So our members can decide on any one day whether they want to go fishing at that price or whether they deliver it. And we give the commitment to them that we will receive that product. Then essentially what we do is we do our best job to move the product through the supply chain as cheaply as possible, keep that cost down, keep the quality of their product at a premium and sell it at a maximum price, which ultimately means then that we can deliver a maximum beach price back to them. So any profit that we generate from that transaction will ultimately go back to them. So we give that back to our fishers in the form of loyalty payments at the end of certain periods, marketing periods, depending on how our trading and our supply chain has operated. So our members own shares as most cooperatives do. So members own shares and we give them bonus shares for their loyalty and for their custom. And obviously the members are very involved in and quite closely engaged with the business as well. So we have six members, six fishing members on our board and two independents on our board of eight and we’re in daily contact. We have a member services division in daily contact with our members as well, and making sure that we’re living true to our purpose of delivering value to them in whatever way they see or they might quantify value, obviously, financial return for lobsters is right at the top, but there’s other elements. And as the BCCM has done some fantastic work in this area over recent years with the MVM, the mutual value model, and we’ve really embedded that into actually our strategic plan and everything that we do so that we can when we are working with our members and talking with our members that we look at all of the different ways that we deliver value to them, not only in maximising price, but how we engage in their local community, what we’re doing from a commercial perspective, what we’re doing at an industry perspective, the co-operative mindset, all of those sorts of things is the way that we really judge our performance and hopefully our members judge our performance as well.

Michael [00:12:36] That end-of-year payment with the shares and the members, is there a limit on how many shares an individual fisher can own, and does that influence their voting rights?

Matt [00:11:48] There is a limit so there’s a share cap, but it doesn’t limit their voting rights. It’s one member, one vote so the smallest fisher has an equal say in the co-op as our largest fishers.

Michael [00:13:01] So how many members would you be running that have got fishing boats on the water throughout the year?

Matt [00:13:07] So we have somewhere around 170 boats and around about 330 members. So we have members who are in quota and who provide that quota to other members who have boats. So not only active fishers, but also what we call investors in the industry as well. So one of the key services that we provide to our fishers is connecting them up with other quota owners and quota holders so that can increase the efficiencies and increase the throughput on their individual boats as well.

Michael [00:13:49] While you’re predominantly for export, is there involvement from other food producers or related industries that see the success of the co-op and they can either piggyback on it or provide suggestions and some sort of input?

Matt [00:14:07] Yes, certainly, I mean, we’re connected in with obviously the local seafood industry and one of the benefits that we’ve got, I think, is our scale. So we, as I said earlier, we’re moving product through our supply chain and processing product every single day. So there are opportunities for us to make available to smaller players, whether they be co-operatives or not, and in varying forms of support, whether it be marketing. So giving them access to and helping them to sell their product overseas or helping them to put product through our supply chain as well. So we have two major processing facilities down here in Perth. So we’ve got one at Welshpool, which processes live export so we’re actually an accredited consolidator of cargo here, which means that we can load direct into airline containers on site rather than having to do it at the airport, which gives us real efficiencies, which a lot of smaller players don’t have. So we can we work with the likes of live abalone exporters and live crab exporters, for an example, to provide those services. And then in Fremantle we have our major frozen processing facility as well. So we’ve got a high capacity in-line steam cooker as well as raw frozen processing facilities, which we can make available to other seafood exporters or smaller seafood companies as well. So we’re very open in that regard. And again, like I say, it’s the direct benefit, anything that we do there has to be a direct benefit to our members and the direct benefit is essentially getting better utilisation out of their assets.

Michael [00:15:53] You look at dairy co-ops, for example, they also have rural supply operations so the farmers can also go in and get products. Given the size of Western Australia and the area you cover, does the co-op also get itself involved in marine supplies, making sure the boats remain on the water?

Matt [00:16:12] Yes, so we’ve got a marine store and we service all of our fishers through the marine store up in Geraldton. So all of their essential supplies like ropes and floats and those sorts of things and we also make that available to the general public as well. And we’ve got a boat lifter up in Geraldton, so for, you know, for hardstand services and those sorts of things. And then we’ve also got a very small food service operation, which is a fresh fish and fish and chip shop in Geraldton as well.

Michael [00:16:50] You’d like to think it’s fresh.

Matt [00:16:52] It’s as fresh as it comes, any fishes that might be long liners as well and catch finfish, they can sell their product through there and the locals can come and get the freshest, best fish in town.

Michael [00:17:07] You plug in the product and actually at the moment that’s probably even allowing for the fact that COVID has impacted like everywhere else, the price of seafood in Geraldton, elsewhere the overseas market that’s made it more expensive but having been able to get the fish and chips at least that’d make it a bit cheaper, wouldn’t it?

Matt [00:17:24] Yes, there’s always something for someone.

Michael [00:17:28] Matt Rutter, who is the CEO of Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-op, is my guest on the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals’ Meet the Farmers Podcast. I’m Michael Kavanagh. It’s a big area but the seafood co-op covers, as I understand it, what something like around about 20 facilities, over a thousand kilometres. You really must have your skates on when you’re trying to co-ordinate all of the operations, whether they be on the water, with the processing or even the marine supplies.

Matt [00:18:00] Yes, certainly it’s a complex task, and particularly when you’re talking about transporting. Essentially, our supply chain is large seafood. So we have a fleet of bespoke trucks, which keep our crays in water from the moment that we take them off the boat to when we send them to our customers around the world. I guess one of the benefits that we’ve got is that we have grown in scale. So we’re now nearly 70% of the market in WA and as Australia’s largest fishery that also makes us one of the largest in the world for the export of rock lobster, which is pretty unique when you look at primary producers, who in many markets have enjoyed being price makers rather than price takers because they hold such a large market share that scale and market share, the benefits of that really flow back down the supply chain to what you’re talking about in terms of the task of managing the movement of their product from boat through to processing through to the end consumers. So we did a lot of work around investigating how to optimise that down to even understanding how we can minimise the time between the wait time so we pick up from over 50 landing points, whether they be some of those facilities you spoke about or just the beach landing point and the efficiencies of that truck fleets, so if we can minimise even a half an hour wait time for a truck waiting at a beach landing for one of our fishers with the size of the task that we’ve got, there are huge savings for our members there. So I think it’s one of the benefits that we can provide to our members is that we’ve got that scale and we’re always investigating how to optimise that supply chain, and they get the direct benefit of that so not a middleman. Any of those savings go back to our members, which they simply wouldn’t get with any of the other non-co-operative traders that they could sell to.

Michael [00:20:06] And you look at the history of the co-op, as you said, started up in the ’50s, quite simple the US market into Asia and then as the decades have gone on into live exports, then Taiwan came in, sashimi, how much is even what you’re catching, how it’s processed or the market driven by the demand overseas and therefore you’re watching the taste because I suppose no one ever really thought of sashimi back in the ’60s, for example.

Matt [00:20:35] Yes, so there’s, we’re definitely influenced by the changing tastes and changing demand. And I think what’s been interesting over our history has been seeing the move from one big market into the next big market. So as we said, tails were a big market in the US. Then we went to frozen into Taiwan, then we went into frozen sashimi grade into Japan and a lot of that was really born from marketing and promotion that we did and going into the market and finding those new markets and over many years building them to the point where eventually they would take over and become the next major market. And then through to China, which was live, so did a lot of work in developing that supply chain and growing that supply chain to the point where China became the major markets so very much I think it’s circular. So it’s not so much that it’s both proactive as well as reactive to seeing where those opportunities are. And now we’re going through a similar thing with unfortunately, China is now closed to us. So we’re doing a similar thing going at developing new markets all over the world, reinstating a lot of those old markets and seeing what we can do to meet their current needs and to grow and to see where the next big market might be.

Michael [00:22:10] Yes because you mentioned there about the live exports, one particular market that’s fallen away. Do you also find, though, that different markets at the end of the day, they still want the seafood delivered uniformly? Or do you find that there are different whether be, say, northern Europe versus southern Europe, are they expecting different sort of product even though it is essentially seafood out of the west Australian waters.

Matt [00:22:36] I think they all have an underlying base need for obviously good quality. The base, our product is quite unique in the way that its intrinsic value has traditionally been, I should say, has been in its whole form. So being able to show a whole crayfish on the plate is pretty widely accepted around the world as being desirable. So in that sense, I think that there is that the markets are quite uniform, but I think that there’s a growing in one of the areas that we’re looking at is really looking at home use. So we’ve traditionally been food service celebratory product that served in restaurants and hotels and those sorts of things. But there’s a growing sector of the market in certain markets, which is more for home use. So what we’ve got to do is work out how we can make it, make the product more user friendly for, you know, for mums and dads to cook at home. We’re still exploring that but we think that there are opportunities there. Again, I think that it will have a long tail on it in terms of how long that will grow to become, you know, a significant market for us. But it’s certainly one that we have to be exploring.

Michael [00:23:59] The co-op itself and there’s such thing as the Marine supplies and you also started to branch out, some co-ops provide, for example, agronomists, obviously not on the water, but does the co-op look at that sort of thing and possibly advising on finance for its members?

Matt [00:24:20] Not finance per se but we do look at other opportunities. So we’re exploring opportunities around where, again, the scale of the co-op could provide some benefits around things like cull insurance, fuel, one of the other things that I didn’t mention earlier was we sell baits, so we’re exploring what are other, for example, non-traditional bait options they might be for our members. So we certainly do that but we haven’t extended into the advisory side of things as yet, but we also not directly related to question, but we also do get involved in the underlying in very actively involved in discussions around things like sustainability, which is really about underpinning the security and the longevity of our members businesses and getting involved in quota-setting discussions and looking at how we assess sustainability and how we assess value not only for our members but for the whole community of the shared resource.

Michael [00:25:27] On the question of sustainability, we’ve seen both on the West Coast and the East Coast over the last few years incredible changes on such things as quotas, licences, being able to fish close to shore, offshore, the different categories, how much has that affected such a big fishery such as yours and the members? Did you see that some members left the industry or they were re-energised by the changes?

Matt [00:25:56] I don’t think anyone’s left the industry over here for sustainability reasons, mainly because we are extremely sustainable. So we have stuff on the ground that many old timers size back to virgin levels, the catch rates are extremely high. We’re very fortunate compared to a lot of other fisheries around the country and around the world, and that’s really come from good fisheries management practises. So I think that’s the first thing is that we are extremely sustainable. So we haven’t seen, as I said, we haven’t seen any fishes dropping out due to sustainability. But there are certainly a lot of discussions going on in the industry at the moment around things like wind farms, marine parks and those sorts of things. So as an industry, obviously we have to support the development within a fishery of those sorts of things and work with the government, which we’re doing. The other things that we’re doing around sustainability relate to really understanding the value of sustainability and the interplay between having a sustainable resource and maximising the value of that resource. So there’s a lot of misconceptions, I guess, that fishers will naturally be incentivised to catch the maximum volume out of the ocean because that’s going to maximise the returns. But we’re doing a lot of work at the moment and GFC is very actively involved in this around what we call maximum economic yield and that’s really looking at, well, you can go out and you can catch another 2 million kilos, but what’s the price going to do? What catch rates going to do? And what is the net return in your back pocket? So this year we’ve actually just developed with the industry developed a maximum economic yield model, which looks at that. And it’s very interesting when you see the curve and that economic yield curve that really confirms what we’ve always known is that it’s in our interest to keep more crayfish in the ocean because that will keep your costs low. You can catch more and it’ll put less pressure on the market, which means that you can drive the higher prices and maintain that premium price point. So it’s really interesting when you start to look at sustainability from those points of view and then broadening that out to say, well, if you’re under exploiting or not under exploiting, but you’re exploiting the resource within that sort of model, then you get the flow on benefits of less marine interactions, less fuel burn and so forth, which then plays into the, to the broader sustainability around climate and nature and those sorts of things. So this is an area that we’re really interested in, in which we really are working with the broader industry around, because it gets right to the core of who we are as a co-operative, which is underpinning the business, you know, the businesses of our members and really living that, you know, that I think as well linking in and showing how those sorts of things to show. Well, if our members can be profitable and maximise profitability, you can also then maximise the benefit to the community. If the community can go out there and get a recreational licence and easily catch their crays every day before 6:00 in the morning before going to work. So it’s a really interesting interplay and sustainability is something that we as cooperative are very, very focused on.

Michael [00:29:48] It will be a nice way to start the morning off, eight crays, put them up there for breakfast and head off, coat and tie for the day.

Matt [00:29:55] Even I can do it.

Michael [00:29:58] I’m Michael Kavanagh and this is Meet the Farmers podcast for Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals. And my guest in this podcast is the CEO of Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-op, Matt Rutter. Matt, the co-ops themselves since COVID and probably a little bit before they had fallen by the wayside. But co-ops seem to be enjoying a resurgence and an acceptance of being able to drive, as you said, being able to work out what’s good for the community and also for the members. What do you put that down to?

Matt [00:30:32] I think I’ll put it down to the simple fact that we’re principles based businesses. So through our various we’ve been through various crises over the last two and a half years and the guiding principles of who we are as a co-operative so the seven principles genuinely have helped us to determine the best way to go. I think there is a lot of and through COVID and the pandemic and all the turmoil in the world at the moment, there’s a greater community expectation around business. And it’s really I think that people are starting to wake up to the fact that co-ops have been have really been principle based businesses the whole way through have been adjusting the way that they operate to community expectations for hundreds of years. What is now called ESG is really enshrined in our principles. And the thing for me, having worked, you know, nearly a quarter of a century in co-operatives, is that as an employee of a co-op, it’s being able to work for the people and to know the people that you’re working for and to see the direct impact on them, their families and the communities and the broader industry as well. You know, a long, proud industry such as ours; it’s not all about exploitation. It’s not all about short-term profit. It genuinely is about how do we keep these people in businesses? How do we keep our local communities operating through the pandemic? How do we minimise not only looking at our own balance sheet and making sure that as a co-op we survive but how do we look at the balance sheets of our members and what can we do to shape the markets that they’re working in to, you know, to protect their balance sheet and to protect them? So I think it’s something that I’m extremely passionate about, obviously, but I think it’s nice to see that resurgence in recognition for who co-operatives are and what they stand for. And I think there’s just so much opportunity for the co-ops around the country and around the world and to apply those co-operative principles and to really think what is the best business model these days.

Michael [00:32:55] How do you protect that success in the sense that we’ve seen some very well run co-ops in Australia. They get a good share price amongst their members and then there’s the push to either de-mutualise or mutualise and go and we’ve seen very successful co-ops, unfortunately, fall by the wayside when it became much more privately owned and run. How does the Geraldine Fisherman’s Co-op protect against that sort of thing?

Matt [00:33:23] I actually think the MVM model is the perfect way to protect against it. Well, the principles to start with but I think in terms of the members themselves, it speaks to the values. So our purpose is to maximise value for members short, medium and long-term but there has been always this discussion of what is value? Is it price? Is it sustainability? What is value? And I think that the work that the BCCM has done and the other co-ops with BCCM to really refine that model helps us to define value, which then importantly we need to be communicating to our members because I think the underlying need that common need amongst our members is still there. But there is a temptation and a risk to forget that depending on who’s the loudest on the day and what the focus is. And I think for me again that the MVM model has been really important guiding principle when we’re talking with our members to talk about not only what we’re doing to maximise price and minimise costs to maximise their base price, but what are we also doing in the communities that they are living in? What are we doing in the industry and with the other stakeholders with the co-operative mindset? And what does that mean for them and for the business? And I think as long as we’re communicating it in that way, it opens the eyes up to just the dollars and cents, which is where I think a lot of the risk comes from in terms of these de-mutualisation type discussions. And it’s something as a sector, I think we need to work at and just continue to champion and not just look at the dollars and cents. Obviously that’s the core but there’s so much more that co-operatives can do.

Michael [00:35:15] On that point of being able to do things such a large co-operative like yourselves, and you’re obviously dealing with overseas clients all the time, is there a need for possibly even closer cooperation amongst the co-ops, not just in Australia, but you’re looking at the way co-ops operate overseas? And is there the point where you can actually draw on the expertise of those different co-ops and combine the efforts?

Matt [00:35:42] Yes, I think without a doubt, I think that cooperation amongst co-operatives principle is something that we’re really interested in. We’ve explored it and have helped other co-ops in Australia to get up and to get running. And I think that there’s no end to the amount of collaboration and cooperation between, you know, whether it be amongst other seafood co-ops around Australia or any other sort of co-ops or mutuals. I think that as a community, we need to be working and looking for those opportunities because it’s interesting that when you get a group of cooperative and mutual CEOs and champions together the opportunities that come together that come out of those sorts of discussions. And as much and this is something I think, again, that as an industry, we’re doing a lot better with BCCM’s leadership is how do we explore those opportunities and what sort of models can we can we learn from overseas and what sort of new models can we come up with as well?

Michael [00:36:52] Fishing like a lot of primary industry sector have trouble with getting young people involved. And I know in the case of the Geraldton’s Fishermen’s Co-op, it goes back in some cases four generations. Are you still at the same time finding it difficult to regenerate and getting younger people involved?

Matt [00:37:14] Yes, there is that challenge within certainly within the membership. But to a degree, I think where it is, it’s quite a nice industry and that succession does seem to be passing on to the next generations. Obviously, there is an element of consolidation when the next generation doesn’t want to take on the fishing operations, but the family will stay involved either as investors or as fishers. So the challenge for us, I think, is how do we stay engaged with them in the next generation as well, whether they are actively fishing or investors but it’s certainly a challenge. And I think it’s no different to farming, where gradually you do see the operators getting bigger and bigger, but it doesn’t seem to be happening at a breakneck speed. For us, it’s about what can we do to help maintain and to keep bringing in those smaller players because having that diversity of small and big players is really what creates rich community and creates the rich heritage that we formed that we’ve enjoyed for 70 years.

Michael [00:38:25] Well, we’re not that far out from the festive season, which normally would be a terrific time for operations such as yourself, particularly with the crays, and they are seen as that sort of thing and they look fantastic on a table where you’re celebrating something. Given all that’s gone on in the last couple of years, how much do you think that it will pick up and will there be that demand for the celebration season or are you just still trying to just consolidate at the moment?

Matt [00:38:57] I think there’s a lot of opportunity for and we have seen demand pick up. I mean, one of the big windfalls, if you like, of all our misfortunes over the last couple of years is prices drop quite significantly. So it’s at a price point now that works for the locals. We are selling a lot more and it tends to only be over Christmas and Easter that we see the big consumption in the local market. But that said, there’s a large amount of product coming out of that, as I was talking about earlier, the recreational fishers. So there’s a huge amount of product coming out of the ocean from people who have their own boats and sharing crayfish and having it over Christmas so that’s certainly a benefit. I guess one of the challenges is that the local market, the local consumers are much more price sensitive, whereas a lot of other countries probably value product higher. Whether that’s because they might have a cultural connection to the crayfish, because it’s auspicious and lucky and has traditionally been consumed in more festivals and what we’re doing or whether, you know, there’s just changing demographics and wealth profiles in those countries so that’s one of the challenges we’ve got. And as we, the prices have come down over the last two years because we’ve been trying to promote a premium product into the food service market globally, where very few people have been going out and eating and celebrating and that will obviously turn. So the challenge for us now is, well, how do we maintain our local market if the prices do go up and what sorts of things can we be, can we be doing to make sure that there’s still that local availability for anyone here in Australia who wants to enjoy the product?

Michael [00:40:45] Now you talk to other seafood co-ops and one of the things that seems to grate on them and I get annoyed with myself, so if you walk into a restaurant, first of all you are asked for local caught and often you just don’t get it. And the other thing is the other one, barramundi or salmon, how do you commit? And it’s not just the public, you seem to have to convince the chefs as well that there is this great product that’s wider in these huge fisheries of the different parts of the Australian coast.

Matt [00:41:14] Yes, it is a challenge and, you know, we’re competing against cheaper, lower quality products that’s being imported. And you see that in a number of other proteins in primary foods as well. But yes, it’s certainly a challenge and part of the challenge there, I think is to get the restaurants to be branding the product so they can’t just substitute whatever’s the cheapest import on the day. And that, I think, has to be consumer driven. And so and I think, you know, there are things like understanding the carbon footprint of what you’re eating and those sorts of things I think become pretty important and I think it’ll change over time. So the challenge for us is how do we stay ahead of that and how do we sort of try to help to drive that but I think ultimately it needs to be you know, for us, we’d love to see Western rock lobster on the menu and for consumers to know that it’s literally comes straight out of the ocean’s next door rather than being imported or substituted for something else.

Michael [00:42:19] Yes, I know myself, if I walk into a fresh seafood shop and I just make it really clear that I want locally caught the people on the counter, their eyes actually light up. You can almost sense that there’s a bit of excitement and we’re going to give this person, maybe different, may not have heard of that fish and again it seems to come back to educate. Then I say, well, how would you prepare it?

Matt [00:42:40] Yes.

Michael [00:42:41] Is that also the fact with possibly the local knowledge of what even comes out of those WA waters?

Matt [00:42:49] Yes, it’s certainly for crayfish, I think everyone gets you know, it’s actually an extremely easy product to make at home once you know how to make it. But I think that it has made a few home cooks nervous. I think most of the food service people are all pretty comfortable with it, but yes, we’re doing a lot of work, you know, just putting out how to guides and those sorts of things nowadays to remove some of the anxiety that might come with what to do with this product when you get at home.

Michael [00:43:22] Well, Matt, on that note, what’s the favourite way that you like your shellfish that comes out of those waters?

Matt [00:43:31] Actually, my preferred my latest preferred way of having them is simply either steamed or boiled or barbecued, with a dash of truffle oil. In that way, you just get all the flavour of the lobster with a little hint of truffle. But failing that if you can’t access the truffle then garlic butter, you can’t go past a generous serve of garlic butter.

Michael [00:43:59] I must say truffles so what, you actually pour the truffle oil as it’s cooking or you serve it, like you pour it, after it’s on the plate.

Matt [00:44:06] When it’s on the plate. So very, very simple. And I think I’m a big I’m a big fan of simple with grilled fish because you, you know, you want to be able to taste the taste so anything that you put on it should complement but not overpower it.

Michael [00:44:23] Well, you’ve certainly got me salivating on that note, I’ll leave you because I think the idea of the truffle oil on the catch sounds fantastic.

Matt [00:44:33] And I definitely recommend that.

Michael [00:44:35] Matt, thanks very much for your time.

Matt [00:44:38] Thanks, Michael.

Michael [00:44:41] For a person heavily involved in the seafood industry, I was interested to hear Matt’s ideas on cooking some of the wonderful seafood that’s processed by the Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-operative. Melina, I’m a fan of simple preparation of seafood. What about yourself?

Melina [00:44:57] I don’t get my hands on rock lobster very often, unfortunately, but I absolutely love seafood and it’s good for you and we’re talking about a sustainable industry so what’s not to like? I hope that’s whetted your appetite. For more from our regular podcast, Meet the Co-op Farmers, I look forward to seeing you next time. I hope you enjoyed this latest episode of Meet the Co-op Farmers. If you’d like to know anything about setting up or running a successful agricultural co-operative, you can find out everything you need to know at the co-op farming website that’s www.coopfarming.coop that’s right coop for co-operative. Please share this with your mates, if you enjoyed this story, we really do want to get the great stories of farming co-operation out there. And remember, in a troubled world, with all of the challenges but also the opportunities we have, we really are better together. I’m Melina Morrison, and I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of Meet the Co-op Farmers.

Other Episodes

Episode 3: How Australia's largest grain exporter works
Farming can be a risky business, swinging from feast to famine, drought to flooding rains. But CBH, one of the biggest in the world, has managed high consistent results for its members for more than 85 years.
The Lockyer Valley: Feeding Australia
Michael Cavanagh sat down with Colin Dorber, the driving force behind the co-op and a man committed to the future prosperity of the Lockyer Valley region.
Episode 4: How a fishing co-op formed with friendship
A job offer at local football game led to Rodger Long helping to form one of the most innovative fishing co-operatives in the nation.
SEE ALL PODCASTS