The competitive edge in seafood and aquaculture

  • Pete Hodgson
Fisheries and Aquaculture

[Address to the Maritime and Seafood Educators Association, Wellington]

Someone famous once said that knowledge is the only instrument of production not subject to the law of diminishing returns. In other words, unlike anything else, the more knowledge you use in production, the better your return - always.

We used to think that with 4.8 million square kilometres of Exclusive Economic Zone around New Zealand we wouldn't have to use knowledge in our seafood industries at all. We imagined we could keep taking what we wanted from the resources around us and nature would always provide.

In fact, like any resource, if our fisheries aren't managed properly we won't have them. Which is why 14 years ago a farsighted Labour Government brought in a sustainable fisheries management system.

When that system came in we started thinking smarter in this industry - and probably stole a march on the rest of New Zealand.

Knowledge is at the heart of the renaissance in New Zealand's seafood and aquaculture industries. An increasingly health-conscious and educated consumer is being met by an increasingly efficient and ecosystem-aware industry.

Today, New Zealand's yearly seafood exports total $1500 million, up from $1100 million just four years ago. That makes seafood our fourth largest export earner. Aquaculture exports account for about $280 million of that total. The seafood industry is also a growing employer, with more than 26,000 full time equivalent jobs.

We've thankfully moved on from the days where improving our competitive position meant a focus on cost cutting. There is a much wider understanding now that if you're competing only on cost then its time to find another market - or risk becoming a sweatshop operation. For growing industries, like seafood and aquaculture, adding value is the real key to improving competitiveness.

There is no better place to see what adding value means in this industry than the Tokyo fish market. There you can see fresh NZ Big Eye Tuna being sold for anything between $20 to $100 per kilo. In that one fish we can immediately see what a difference quality makes in the hip pocket of the New Zealand fishing and aquaculture industries.

I don't have to tell you that the secret to that $100 per kilo catch is in the processing - the specialist procedures that begin immediately a catch is brought on board and don't finish until its sale on an overseas or domestic market.

Which is where you all come in. If we're looking to get gold-like prices for our fish and aquaculture then we need people well trained to process it properly and efficiently.

Gone are the days when commercial fishing and aquaculture were what you ended up doing if you couldn't find work elsewhere. It was a qualification-free zone back then. No qualifications when you went in - and nothing really when you came out. Anyone looking for a career turned their heads and hearts to the maritime tickets - deckhand, mate, engineer, skipper.

Now thanks to the industry and the Seafood Industry Training Organisation there are 124 different unit standards and 9 national certificates registered on the National Qualifications Framework. They cover the whole gamut of our seafood industry, from mussel farming to business administration.

The people in this industry are now well trained and knowledgeable about their work. They are also able to increase that knowledge to improve their work output and their employability elsewhere.

Importantly, the industry still pulls in people often underrepresented in other industry training efforts. For example, of the total number of trainees last year, 25.3% were Maori, and 34.6% were women - well ahead of other Industry Training Organisations.

The recent expansion of the Modern Apprenticeship scheme to include seafood industries will assist these figures too.

As the educators for this industry you can be well pleased with your efforts so far. But I don't have to tell you that learning is a constant imperative for any career and for any industry. You have raised the profile and recognition of seafood and aquaculture trades, but New Zealand also relies on you to keep our people abreast - or even better, ahead - of what is happening elsewhere.

Our competitive position in the seafood and aquaculture industry relies on how well you can pick up global trends and adapt the knowledge gained for our workforce.

As consumers get greener, we can expect their requirements to become more refined. Concerns about the accidental kills in the industry - seals, birds, dolphins - are replacing older issues like overfishing and driftnetting. Whatever the issue or trend, we need to see it early and adapt our industry to meet it.

I want to leave you with a challenge.

Our seafood industry has made a substantial investment in skills and knowledge in the traditional areas of catching, processing and marketing fish over the past five years. That needs to continue, but to get the best value from a finite fishing resource we need people with new skills

One of the Government's key strategies is to increase fisher participation in fisheries management. What this means is that fishing organizations will have to invest heavily in obtaining skills and knowledge in the area of economically sustainable fisheries management. These skills are very scarce in this country.

Until now Government has done all the fisheries management. That is changing. The 1996 Fisheries Act provides the legal framework for industry and other stakeholders to take over many of the management functions. That Act will be fully implemented at the start of next month.

This is a huge challenge. If stakeholders are serious about taking up more management responsibility, they must demonstrate competence before they get that responsibility. They must put their money where their mouth is.

So here's the challenge.

I would be very interested in seeing a plan from you for how the New Zealand seafood industry is going to build skills and knowledge to support the strategy of stakeholder management. Such a plan would help me and my Ministry plan for the future. It would demonstrate the commitment of the industry to take up a new and important role.

Yes, it is an intensive task, requiring each of you to learn just as well as you teach. But as I mentioned at the outset, you can never have too much knowledge. So keep teaching and keep learning - the future of your industry is in your very capable hands.

Thank you.