Article – WA Aboriginal communities propose joint venture to secure stake in fish farm project

11 October 2014
Sean Murphy
ABC News
Three Aboriginal communities in the far north of Western Australia are hoping to become major players in a new aquaculture industry, but may face competition from foreign investors.
At remote Cone Bay, north of Derby, the WA Government has proclaimed a 2,000 hectare site for up to 20,000 tonnes of fin fish to be produced annually.
Perth based Marine Produce Australia (MPA) has spent $50 million developing a barramundi farm in the zone.
The company has designed cages to withstand daily tides of up to 11 metres and predators such as crocodiles and sharks.
“A lot of research and development has gone into it,” said MPA’s managing director Desiree Allen.
“An incredible amount of work has gone in,” she said.
The company currently produces about 1,000 tonnes a year but wants to increase that to 7,000 tonnes in the next few years.
Aboriginal communities to apply for slice of production capacity
Now, the Bardi Jawi, Myala and Dambimangari Aboriginal communities have formed a joint venture with John Hutton, a former director of MPA, whose family has owned a pearl farm in Cone Bay for more than 30 years.
Their proposal is called Aarli Mayi, which means seafood in the Bardi language and they will apply for a license for the remaining production capacity.
The group believe a modern fish farm is a logical progression from the tidal fish traps Aboriginal people have harvested in the region for generations.
Bardi elder Irene Davey said chronic social problems in her community, which was identified as at risk under the Howard Government’s Intervention, would be alleviated if there were more jobs.
“Good jobs, not just any jobs though, people living and working at home and working with something that they’re familiar with anyway because we are salt water people, so it’s nothing new,” Ms Davey said.
“The only thing that’s going to be different is breeding it, not catching it out of the wild. [But] we can do both,” she said.
Communities work towards ‘economic independence’
John Hutton is providing business and technical advice for a 25 per cent stake in Aarli Mayi.
He said his motivation is to help the communities work towards economic independence.
“Our involvement with the traditional owners of the area has been very close knit and as kids we used to work on the pearl farm with kids who are the mums and dads right now,” said Mr Hutton.
He believes a twenty-fold increase in current fish production at Cone Bay will require a huge investment in the supply chain with hundreds of additional jobs in transport, feed manufacture and storage, ice and machinery works, breeding and maritime services.
Mr Hutton said the Arli Mayi partners were willing to work with MPA to attract investment and develop the infrastructure needed to support the new zone.
“It’s not actually worth growing that fish unless you’ve got the supply chain infrastructure invested,” Mr Hutton said.
But Dr Allen said the Aboriginal communities would be better off working with MPA than starting their own business.
“I think it would be great for the Aboriginal communities to have some barramundi operation there,” Dr Allen said.
“I think they’d be better served to maybe join the one that’s currently working and successful.
Bio-security concerns means fewer operators favoured
WA Fisheries head of aquaculture Steve Nel said the department was still developing a management plan for the zone, but it would favour having fewer operators.
“In fact from a bio-security point of view, the fewer operators that there are, the fewer larger operators that there are, afford greater bio-security protection so that would actually be our preference,” Mr Nel said.
Fisheries Minister Ken Baston said he was keen to call for expressions of interest as soon as possible.
“I want to see other investors in there and I want to see it large,” Mr Baston said.
Last month Mr Baston was in China where he had talks with the Zhejiang Marine and Fisheries Bureau, which produces about 1.8 million tonnes of farmed fish a year worth $2 billion.
He said he would welcome Chinese investment in the new zone.
“We’re always interested in foreign investment. This state has been made on foreign investment so we’ll look at foreign investment from maybe the Chinese. Maybe the Japanese, maybe from anywhere else in the world, that’s always welcome.”
Mr Baston said he was aware of the Aarli Mayi proposal.
“When we get to the process, if they meet all the requirements, I guess, yeah, they’re in with a run, everyone is,” he said.
Chance to make ‘self determination more than slogan’
The Kimberley Land Council said it would support foreign investment as long as traditional owners were involved.
“It’s when you bring in outside interests that totally do not engage with those native title or traditional owner groups so its money going out of the community, it’s opportunity for everybody else but not our groups who are the most disadvantaged,” the council said.
Traditional elders such as Donny Woolagoodja, a Dambimangari elder, said the Arli Mayi project is a chance to make self determination more than a slogan.
“It’s an opportunity for the younger generation, so they’ll learn what the future will bring,” Mr Woolagoodja said.
“Aboriginal people didn’t have that in the past, they used to work for people all the time, but now it’s time to step up and do something for themselves,” he said.
The WA Government also has plans to proclaim a second aquaculture zone at the Abrolhos Islands off Geraldton on the mid-north coast.
A traditional fish trap of the Bardi Jawi people near One Arm Point, north of Broome.
Courtesy of ABC News