Proudly supporting WA’s fishing industry for over 70 years
Geraldton Fishermen's Co-operative
Western Australia covers a vast area, its thriving capital Perth serving as a gateway to the state’s rugged natural beauty and the smaller cities and regions that dot the land. The almost 13,000km of mainland coastline offers a playground for adventurers as well as supporting a booming fishing industry.
One of the key players in this sector is Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-operative (GFC), which has been supporting WA fishermen for over 70 years. While it initially focused on the town of Geraldton, it now has members spanning an area of almost 1000kms from beyond Kalbarri in the north to south of Augusta and is Australia’s largest fishery. Rural journalist Michael Cavanagh sat down with GFC’s CEO Matt Rutter to learn more.
Originally established by fishermen seeking a fairer deal, Matt explains the primary activity of GFC is “receiving crayfish off the beach from our members, moving that product through to market and selling it.” He adds that the co-op is “a service provider to our fishers to take deliveries, store, handle, move and market their product to customers around the world.” The ongoing international demand for their products demonstrates how effectively GFC does its work.
The primary product that GFC handles is the western rock lobster (also known as crayfish), which lives off the coast of Western Australia, and it currently exports 6.6 million kilos each year under the Brolos brand. In recent times, new product lines have been added including snow crab, crystal crab, king crab, abalone and scallops, but the focus remains on rock lobster. Explaining the role of these additional product lines, Matt notes “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?’”. He also explains that GFC retains a strong sense of its core purpose: “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.”
The major markets for rock lobster have shifted over time. Originally, there was a large market for canned lobster for the USA, where it was used as army rations. Today the US remains an important market, but tastes have shifted and lobster tails are now highly sought after as a premium product. China has previously been a major export destination, while today Japan is a significant market. GFC offers a variety of rock lobster products, including “frozen, the whole cooked, whole raw, tails, split product and so forth.”
GFC’s services extend beyond receiving fresh seafood. A marine store provides essentials for fishermen, offering ropes and floats and other essentials, and a boat lifter in Geraldton allows maintenance work. The GFC fish and chip shop in Geraldton is a local favourite, allowing the general public to enjoy the freshest seafood around.
The co-operative structure of Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-operative ensures that it operates in the best interests of its members. Each of the 330 members has one vote, “so the smallest fisher has an equal say in the co-op as our largest fishers.” In a win–win situation, GFC also offers services to non-members, providing them with access to markets and efficiencies that would otherwise be inaccessible, and ensuring GFC’s assets, such as its commercial steam cooker facility, are better-utilized.
The GFC board has six member directors and two independent directors who are tasked with ensuring the co-op constantly works to ensure maximum value for members. Selling seafood can be a tricky business given the constantly shifting prices. This is where the co-op model really shines. Matt explains that “every single day we provide a daily price to our fishers on the beach, which is a direct reflection of the true market in whatever market we're selling to … 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.” GFC then continues to push the product through the supply chain, ensuring costs are kept to a minimum while maximizing quality and profit: “any profit that we generate from that transaction will ultimately go back to them.”
Over the years, GFC has invested in resources to optimise the supply chain from boat to plate, and its seafood is renowned for its superb quality worldwide. It is constantly exploring new markets and new product opportunities, navigating shifting tastes, politics, and logistics.
Matt believes that more and more people are realising the benefits of co-operatives. “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 really been principle-based businesses the whole way through, and 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.”
Further demonstrating their commitment to co-operation, GFC has worked with the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals (BCCM) to embed the Mutual Value Measurement (MVM) Framework© and related tools in its operations. MVM© helps CMEs to measure their total value creation (mutual value) through a set of common dimensions and shared language. Matt explains how it has transformed the co-op: “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. … The MVM model has been really important guiding principles 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?”
Consequently, sustainability is a big focus for GFC. Matt explains that for them, it’s “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”. He explains that they are already reaping the rewards of a tradition of good fisheries management practices in Australia, where we have long realised that sustainable fishing is not just good for the ocean, but good for business: “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 rock lobsters 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.”
Matt’s passion for his work is evident in the way he speaks about GFC with so much pride. And naturally, he’s quite a fan of the end product too. When asked about the best way to prepare rock lobster, he shows a refined palate: “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.” Sounds good to us!
Listen to our interview with Matt Rutter on our Meet the Co-op Farmers podcast.
Visit Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-operative