IT was a season punctured by coronavirus, briefly got back on track and ended with a whimper – but local crayfishers can see some positive signs heading into summer.
The 2019-20 crayfishing season ended last Wednesday with a whimper, as the disruption caused by the coronavirus made itself well and truly felt – particularly with boats stuck in harbour during the late summer and early autumn.
While local boats were able to go back out in April, as the Chinese market reopened (local crays are sold at the so-called “wet” markets), the lack of demand due to Melbourne restaurants being closed – as well as within some of China itself – made for an ordinary season by local standards.
After a promising restart when the beach price (received by fishers) got to about $82/kg, it at one stage fell to $50/kg, roughly the cost of the quota and little more than half what was received last year.
Late in the season it recovered to about $70/kg, with offers of $80/kg.
Long-time crayfisher Wayne Towers skippers one of three boats that operated out of Portland following the restart (out of eight boats, with one of the three not starting until very late in the season) and was blunt when asked to describe the season.
“This year was just a shocker,” he said.
His boat, Gwen Kane, had not been out since May 25.
It largely operates in deeper water of about 60 fathoms (110 metres) off the Peterborough and Cape Otway coast, though it also fishes closer to home.
“We had a bad start in April and went back down the coast but we had had trouble with the tide, the ocean was running like a river,” Mr Towers said.
“We came back here and plodded along okay in 30 fathoms (55 metres) when we had a lot of swell which was in our favour.
“We didn’t fish in winter because the buyers only wanted red fish (found in shallower waters of about 30 fathoms) and the price was nearly half last year.
“In winter going where we wanted to go it’s a big risk because there’s nowhere to hide and we do longer trips (10 days as opposed to the usual 3-4).
“In really nasty weather lobsters can hang on to each other and you’d get back and have trouble. Any more than 10 fish not (fit) for market and they come off your quota.”
However he was ready to go again when the new season started on November 16.
“We’ll be ready to go again and hopefully it’ll be a better season,” Mr Towers said.
Portland Fish Market owner Alistair McDonald said it had been a season of downs and ups.
“Catch rates were pretty good,” he said.
“The market has been fairly low. There’s no domestic market to speak of because the restaurants have been closed and in China while they’ve been receiving in Shanghai, Beijing is still in partial lockdown.”
About six tonnes of the 60-tonne quota available to Portland fishers remained uncaught and would be carried forward to the new season.
The Portland quota is part of the 240 tonnes able to be caught in the western zone stretching from Apollo Bay to the South Australian border.
The seasons actually run from July to June, but catch times are different, and females cannot be caught from June 1 until the November restart, due to it being the breeding season.
South Australia brought forward its season to start last week, ahead of its traditional October 1 opening, as it had a large uncaught quota.
There was also talk of flights out of Adelaide to send crayfish (and other freight) to China to take the pressure off Melbourne, Mr McDonald said.
Portland fish is taken by road to Melbourne.
“Three different airlines are doing three flights a day and they’re absolutely chock-a-block,” Mr McDonald said. “Costs have gone up for exporters as well.”