Rock lobster fishery: free market or state intervention?

Caption: Chinese diners are currently enjoying almost the entire catch of West Australian rock lobsters.

Personally, I?ve never much cared for lobster, which has always struck me as a slightly blander, tougher version of crab. Still, no accounting for taste and all that, some people like lobster rather a lot, and they?re willing to pay. But, pay just how much? And who gets to control the market?

A fascinating battle that highlights the complexities of the free market versus state control is playing out in West Australia?s rock lobster fishery. Should the state have more control, or should it be left to the free market ? even if that means that means that Chinese diners and a lucrative fishing fleet are benefiting at the expense of Australian consumers? Quote:

The fight over who should have control of the nation?s most valuable fishery has pitted crayfishers against their own state government, which wants to seize almost a fifth of the prized West Aus?tralian rock lobster catch.

The plan by the WA Labor government to become the rock ?lobster industry?s biggest single ?licence holder has raised the ?spectre of a partial ?nationalis?ation? of the trade, in an effort to stop almost the entire catch going to China?Acting Fisheries Minister Roger Cook said about 98 per cent of WA?s lobsters were ?exported to China, which left little for locals. End of quote.

Well, they would say that: they?re making a motza off the Chinese. Meanwhile, the Chinese are getting almost the entire catch of premium Australian crays. Australian consumers are left paying through the nose, or making do with stuff imported from Thailand.

We?ve seen this conundrum play out before. Australia has been enduring a shortfall in local natural gas supplies, while LNG is being exported. Quote:

There is a precedent: under former Labor premier Alan Carpenter, WA?s gas reservation policy made it the only state in the nation that sets aside 15 per cent of all LNG for the domestic market. Now the McGowan government wants 17.3 per cent of the WA rock lobster catch for domestic consumption.

WA?s Fisheries Minister Dave Kelly stunned the $500 million rock lobster industry last month by announcing the government would increase the annual quota from 6300 tonnes to 8000 tonnes, and that it would keep 1385 tonnes of that increase for itself.

The rights to fish the state?s quota will be sold or leased to the private sector, in an unprecedented plan that would deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to the government. End of quote.

At the same time, this plan reeks of what I call ?Puffy Pants Taxes?, after the Simpsons episode where Mayor Quimby imposes a rolling series of random taxes, to try and capitalise on the arrival in Springfield of a Hollywood film production. Quote:

Lobster fisherman Clinton Moss, a spokesman for newly formed lobby group Fishing Families WA, said more than 200 fishers, processors and their families were backing the new campaign.

He described the plan as a ??revenue-raising? opportunity by a government desperate to return its budget to surplus.

Mr Moss said major banks were already reviewing fishing businesses as a result of the ?proposal. End of quote.

He has a point, but, still, these blokes don?t seem exactly short of a quid. Quote:

The Australian understands that lobster fishers have already raised about $7m for a lobbying and advertising campaign against the McGowan government?s grab.

It will be expanded nationally next week to target Bill Shorten and federal Labor MPs ahead of the election.

The campaign was launched yesterday with a full-page newspaper ad in Perth that was headed: ?Keep your claws off our crays, Mr Kelly? and asks: ?If this can happen to WA?s fishing families, what industry is next?? End of quote.


This all has echoes of the Mining Tax campaign which did so much damage to Kevin Rudd in his first term. But, it?s exposing some interesting political fault lines: Pauline Hanson has thrown her hat into the fishers? ring, which seems at odds with her general ?economic nationalist? philosophy. So is the government right to skim off the cream of a lucrative industry and ensure that local produce goes to local consumers, or should the free market rule and industry fetch a premium, even if Australian consumers lose out?