It is a deal that would have been unimaginable last Christmas, when Chinese customers were snapping up western rock lobster at jaw-dropping prices and locals in the port city of Geraldton, where they are were caught, often missed out.
But the fishers’ co-operative has now signed a contract with a supermarket giant to put the prized shellfish on retail shelves across Australia at the relative bargain price of $20 each for a cooked lobster.
The coronavirus pandemic and worsening trade crisis with China has seen rock lobster fishers focus on the market closer to home.
Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-Operative chief executive officer Matt Rutter said 35 tonnes of western rock lobster would be sold to Woolworths.
“Before COVID and before all of the recent challenges I think no-one would have contemplated that we would be here,” Mr Rutter said.
“It is certainly one of the biggest challenges we have faced as an industry in our lifetime.
“Fishers are unfortunately getting lower prices but one of the silver linings out of this is local consumers can get the crays a lot cheaper, and the other good part of this is that processing this sort of product is employing a lot of regional people.
“We have put on roughly 200 extra employees over the past two and a half weeks.”
Mr Rutter said the deal did not represent a large part of the co-op’s fishery but it was still significant.
“The volume is still only a very small proportion of the overall fishery — we are a 6,500 tonne fishery — so in the context of that, it is relatively small but every single market is important,” he said.
He would not reveal how much profit the supermarket made from the $20 price.
The co-operative’s seafood outlet at Geraldton’s Fishing Boat Harbour, Brolos Fresh, only opened in July.
Manager Luke Emery said local customers included those who had a recreational licence but were now prepared to buy lobster, or crayfish, because of the price drop.
“The weather has not been that good for amateurs to go out, so I think they are relying on this price drop to get a bit of fresh crayfish on the table,” Mr Emery said.
A fresh 1.5 kilogram ‘cray’ in a tank at the store was selling for $100.
Mr Emery said a year ago it would have been sent straight to China and sold for up to $250.
In a statement, Woolworths’ head of meat and seafood Tim Dudding said the deal between the supermarket and the co-op would give Australians the chance to try a premium product at cheaper prices.
“Lobsters have traditionally been considered a luxury item on the Christmas table,” he said.
“So we are pleased to be making them accessible to more families this year, while also supporting the local industry.”