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Sally-Bolton

Sally Bolton

Communications Manager, MSC Oceania

Talking Tuna with Lisa Jacobsen of Prime Fish Australia

September 1, 2020

To celebrate Tuna Australia gaining MSC certification for the Australian Eastern Tuna & Billfish Fishery, we spoke with Lisa Jacobsen of Prime Fish Australia, a Tuna Australia member and MSC Chain of Custody holder. Our conversation covered how the business has evolved, dealing with the challenges of COVID-19, what MSC certification means for them, and what Aussie seafood lovers need to know about how the fish they love is caught and handled.

How does your business operate?

We are a commercial fishing business. We own and operate three tuna longline vessels based in Southport, on the Gold Coast. Then we have our export and distribution facility in Burleigh Heads, also on the Gold Coast.

Our story starts with Hapuku Fisheries, which was founded in 1988 by Vince Pavia in the seaside town of Wollongong, approximately 100km south of Sydney, Australia.

Originally a motor mechanic, Vince convinced his Dad and brother to take a huge risk and purchase a 38ft longline vessel called the Hapuku. Vince’s 87 year old grandfather initially skippered the boat and imparted his years of fishing knowledge.

In the early 1990’s Jeramy Jacobsen (who is now the General Manger across all operations) was employed as a deckhand and it was from these humble beginnings that this family business began to grow to what it is today. 

Having firsthand knowledge of the fishing process allows our team to fully understand and appreciate the best way to handle our fish to obtain superior quality to satisfy the demands of our domestic and international markets.

We now manage the whole process from the ocean to the consumer and this gives us control over the supply chain. In 2011 we acquired Prime Fish Australia in Mooloolaba and four years ago we bought a building on the Gold Coast, and purpose built our facility here. We designed and built it exactly to our needs for the fishing business. It's fantastic. We've got this great facility, our own truck and we're now self-sufficient. That was the goal of it all. Just over 30 people work for the business at the moment.

little hapuku
Photo: Vince Pavia and Jeramy Jacobsen on the first boat 'Hapuku' in the port of Wollongong ©Prime Fish Australia

What's your role in the business?

Pretty much everything! I'm a general manager, so I oversee the operations from production to quality assurance, marketing, human resources, packing the fish, some accounting and strategic planning. Jeramy started as a deckhand working on the boats and he now manages and oversees the fishing operation, and sales and marketing and more…. I've been involved in the business for more than 20 years. The last nine years I've been full time in the business.

Over the period that you've been involved, what have been the most significant changes you’ve seen in the industry?

Probably for us, the change in demand. Our main catch is sashimi quality tuna. We used to export the bulk of our product to Japan. In the last few years we’ve seen a shift where the demand is a lot higher in the US. A lot of our product goes to the US now versus Japan and that's been a significant change.

People are eating more sashimi grade tuna at home. Before, it was more of a luxury item, only at fine dining restaurants, very much a Japanese cuisine. Now, you're finding it in a lot more restaurants which wouldn't necessarily showcasing sashimi tuna before. It is getting more well known, but it is still quite a niche market for our product.

Also, increased costs. We used to import our bait - we imported squid from Argentina and a few different places. The cost of that bait has increased significantly over the last six years. China is buying a lot of that squid for food product, and the price has gone up considerably. We have adapted our fishing practices to catch our own bait now. That's been a massive change. We had to redesign our boats and change how we fished, which ultimately has worked for us. We're more self-sufficient now that we catch our own bait, we're not relying on those things that are happening around the world.

What will MSC certification mean for your business?

We're hoping it will open up some new markets internationally for us. We’ve been waiting for the certification to see where we can go from here, slowly. This will definitely help us.

We’re also looking at our direct to public sales, and opening up a shop front. I think that's where we're going to find the real benefits of the MSC certification, being able to showcase our fish as sustainable. It is a very niche market. The way we catch the fish and the way we sell it is as a very fresh product: it comes in and we get it to your door. We find that a lot of our direct customers are people who will have a dinner party and talk about how they've bought their fish direct off our boats. Because we do the whole process, we can talk about where it was caught and how it's been handled. Adding the MSC sustainability certification on to that and being able to market that is going to add to the conversation that people are having about our product.

What was the process of being assessed to the MSC Standard like from your side?

To be honest, on the fishery side, it was fabulous! Tuna Australia took care of it all. And it was no pain whatsoever for us. The chain of custody certification - we just went through the audit process. We've got to change a few little ways that we do things and a few procedures and things, but again, it was very straightforward. The audit process was quite easy. We're an export establishment, so we go through rigorous audits and we have a lot of procedures in place. Having to go through that wasn't daunting. We went in and looked at all the different criteria, and made a few adjustments for a few different identification and segregation procedures, but it was pretty painless. I was very happy with that. It has added some more paperwork, of course, like everything does, but I think we're really going to get the benefits from it.

What have been the biggest challenges that you've had to deal with during the current COVID-19 pandemic?

Mainly it came down to the international flights, because the majority of our product is exported. All of a sudden, we had no way of getting it there. We've adapted. We have got some flights that are going out on a weekly basis, and we've had to adapt our fishing practices to try and meet those flights. Whereas in the past, we could come in and unload and send out fish any day of the week. We're  already dealing with the weather and boats and breakdowns along with selling a fresh chilled product, so it's time critical. When my boat comes in, I've got to get it packed and on a plane so it can be in the US or Japan while it's fresh.

We've had to change our fishing practices, and fish more to a schedule – or as much of a schedule as you can, when you're dealing with all those elements. The cost of the freight has increased significantly. The government's International Freight Assistance Mechanism has helped by bringing in subsidies and flight schedules for international freight in our sector, for agriculture and seafood. That has helped lessen the impact, but it’s still double and triple the price of what we were paying pre-COVID.

And then of course, we're dealing with the worldwide markets and what's happening over there as far as COVID goes. For example, Japan seemed to be doing great and demand was still there. Then all of a sudden they shut down, their restaurants were closed, their businesses slowed down. They’re the issues that we're having to deal with, and it changes on a daily basis.

We're an essential service, so we've been able to remain operational and we obviously had to do COVID safe plans. In Queensland, we've been lucky we haven't had big outbreaks. So far, so good. Obviously international travel and international freight are going to be the last things that come back returning to some sort of normality. We're just bracing ourselves to deal with this, and remain operational throughout it.

All the work that we've done previously such as being able to catch our own bait is a huge cost that we have eliminated and allowed us to be more efficient and self-sufficient. We're also not relying on other freight companies, or storage companies. Our facility can cope with what we need. All those things have helped us get through it, day by day.

Prime Fish Australia boats
Photo: the business owns and operates three tuna longline vessels based in Southport, on the Gold Coast ©Prime Fish Australia

What's one thing you wish people who loved Australian tuna and swordfish knew about the care and effort which goes into catching it and supplying it?

We always talk about how we handle our fish, we treat them like babies. Our tuna weighs between 30 and 70 kilos each, so they're big babies! Our fish come out of the cleanest waters in the world and our fishery is one of the best managed. We pride ourselves on our fishing practices , which allow us to get our product to either a customer on the Gold Coast or a restaurant in Tokyo, LA or New York while it's fresh, and they can now be assured that not only it's a top grade sashimi tuna but it is from a sustainable source.

That’s our point of difference in our industry. We do shorter trips, of around five days so our product is super fresh and retains it's higher value. That's what we’ve based our whole operations around. Right down to delivering to the public. Even on the Gold Coast, we've promoted our freshness and will now be able to promote our sustainability. We do a local delivery service at the moment, and anyone who has bought from us has bought from us again. We know that when they get it, they love it.

Our freshness and the speed in which we can bring our fish in and get it to the plate is quite a feat that the general public don't realise. However, our customers know they can see and taste the difference when their fish is super-fresh. Our fish is as fresh as you can get unless you catch it yourself!

What's your favourite way to enjoy your product?

Sashimi tuna with wasabi and soy sauce. That's it. Nice and simple. Can't go wrong. It's my favourite. Sometimes just straight out of the fish. It's so good. If I’m going to cook it, I like swordfish on the barbecue.

Fisher standing in a boat throwing a net with the sun shining in the background

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