Northern Australia aquaculture could quintuple production in five years

New research from the CRCNA finds that aquaculture in the north has significant potential to grow if barriers to investment are overcome.

The aquaculture industry in northern Australia has the potential to increase its production fivefold to more than A$1.34 billion ($886 million; €804 million) in value over the next five years, new research has found.

The findings are from the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia’s analysis on the region’s aquaculture sector, the latest in a string of reports that has already covered forestry and will in future tackle the horticulture, broadacre cropping and rice sectors.

The research, led by James Cook University, found aquaculture could produce five times its current volume of fish, prawns and other seafood over the next decade if barriers can be lifted and private-sector investment encouraged.

The study found the current level of annual production in northern Australia aquaculture is A$223 million, predominantly split between barramundi (33 percent), prawns (32 percent) and pearl oysters (31 percent). Several other species including tropical rock oysters, redclaw and other fish make up the remaining 3 percent.

The research found that this was equivalent to around 17 percent of Australia’s total production of A$1.35 billion, which the federal government has aspirations to double to more than A$2 billion by 2027.

“It’s not a huge industry [in the region] by any means and it’s quite fragmented because of some of the regulatory barriers, and the isolation that northern Australia creates,” James Cook University professor Dean Jerry told Agri Investor.

Jerry said there was potential for the sector to become a “major provider of jobs and income” in the region if government support could help foster investment, among other recommendations.

The report urged better co-ordination between governments and stakeholders to create infrastructure that would enable the development of aquaculture hubs, as well as measures to bolster biosecurity that would reduce risk.

“The main [shared barriers across sectors] are the regulatory burden and the risk of disease,” Jerry said.

“Some sectors like prawns and pearling are still really reliant on undomesticated stocks, so if they can move to full domestication and implementation of breeding programs, there’s enormous potential for them to lower risk and increase productivity and, ultimately, profitability.

“The navigation of the regulatory environment was also a key one – across states there’s very little consistency, and there’s an over-regulated environment compared to other industries, with a lack of co-ordinated policy development.”

Investment in the region’s aquaculture has increased in recent years, with Seafarms Group pushing ahead with a scheme to develop one of the world’s largest prawn farms on the AAM Investment Group-owned Legune Station in the Northern Territory, and ASX-listed Tassal Group launching a A$30 million development of its Proserpine Prawn Farm in Queensland last year.

CRCNA chief executive Jed Matz said he hoped the development of aquaculture zones, which has already begun in Queensland, could help unlock investment.

“In Queensland, the government has already identified where aquaculture development can occur and it’s led to further investment and growth in the sector,” he said. “And when we talk about policy settings, we’re also talking about biosecurity and making sure the industry has got the right infrastructure to enable it to stay free of pests and disease.”

Another recommendation highlighted by both Jerry and Matz was the need to invest in skills and training to support potential industry growth, given that a lot of learning currently is done on the job.

Other recommendations from the report included: supporting the development of, and better access to, domestic and international markets; matching and targeting research and development spending to meet industry needs; and building the northern Australia aquaculture industry as a means for indigenous economic development and independence.

Matz added that the research had also helped find common ground between different producers in a way that hadn’t been seen in the region before.

“We weren’t expecting the way this brought the different sectors together. Prawns, barramundi and the like have all been working on their separate issues, but by bringing them together to look at aquaculture across northern Australia, they’ve learned some new things about their own industries that they perhaps didn’t realize, and realized that there’s a lot to be achieved by working together,” he said.