11 January 2023

Sustainable production drives Aussie abalone export success

A Western Australian abalone business is garnering global attention for its sustainably grown Greenlip abalone. Rare Foods Australia (RFA) is a seasoned exporter with customers across the world. And business is about to boom.

Since achieving Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification in June 2022, RFA has seen a rise in enquiries from overseas buyers. The timing couldn’t be better. RFA already supplies over 20% of the world’s wild-caught Greenlip abalone but has ambitious global expansion plans.

The company is working with Austrade to find new master distributors in its key export regions. Austrade is also advising RFA on new markets such as Vietnam, Canada, India and the Middle East.

‘Our partnership with Austrade provides support and confidence,’ says Alex Wilson, RFA’s General Manager – Sales and Marketing. ‘Austrade’s broad network and expertise across multiple markets is revealing exciting, tangible opportunities for our business.

‘The more we work with Austrade, the more we wish we’d worked with them sooner.’

World-first abalone ‘ranch’ in Western Australia

Formerly known as Ocean Grown Abalone, RFA is an enhanced wild-caught fishery. It uses MSC-certified sustainable practices to produce Greenlip abalone.

In 2009, RFA embarked on a world-first project to build a Greenlip abalone ‘ranch’. The company used patented technology to build 10,000 ABITATS™ or artificial reefs to grow the abalone. The ABITATS are in Flinders Bay in the protected Ngari Capes Marine Park. The reefs use less than 1.5% (5 hectares) of RFA’s 413-hectare lease.

The abalone are left to feed from the ocean for 3 years then harvested. This sustainable process greatly reduces supply volatility. It also produces abalone that are almost identical to their wild-caught counterparts. In 2021–22, RFA achieved a record harvest of 81.7 tonnes.

In addition to its own Greenlip abalone production, RFA exports wild-origin Roei, wild Greenlip and wild Brownlip abalone from local quota holders.

Diversifying export markets

Asia accounts for 76% of RFA’s abalone sales. It has been exporting abalone to Hong Kong – its biggest market – for over 10 years. RFA is now looking to roll out a master distributor model across other regions.

‘Our aim is to expand globally,’ says Wilson. ‘We’re developing a group of master distributors who on-sell through distributors and wholesalers. If we could get master distributors in Europe, Vietnam, India, Middle East and Singapore, on top of existing clients in other Asian markets, that’s nearly our whole harvest done.’

RFA is laying the groundwork for this global expansion with Austrade’s help. The agency has introduced Wilson to potential importers in multiple markets for its live, frozen and canned abalone.

‘Austrade is also advising us on expanding our China exports,’ says Wilson. ‘We’ve asked for help on new markets like Vietnam, Canada, India and the Middle East. They’ve invited us to exhibit alongside them in major trade shows like the Seafood Expo in Boston and in Barcelona.

‘By growing exports, we can keep people in jobs and continue to contribute to the local Augusta community. We can build a sustainable future for the local seafood industry,’ says Wilson.

Diver proudly showing green lip abalone in a net

Australian and international recognition for sustainable practices

RFA is one of only 11 enhanced wild-caught fisheries worldwide to hold MSC certification. It is the first fishery in the world to be MSC-certified for Greenlip abalone farming.

‘The MSC certification led to a surge in enquiries from high-profile overseas businesses looking to buy seafood from accredited, sustainable sources,’ says Wilson. ‘This includes major hotel chains that are mandated to only purchase from sustainable sources.’

In October 2022, RFA won the Western Australian Export Awards for Sustainability. It also became a finalist at the Australian Export Awards held in November 2022 in Canberra.

‘The Australian Export Awards enables us and others to amplify what we do through a credible platform to support economic growth,’ says Wilson. ‘It also acknowledges the hard work, efforts and investments pursued by Australian businesses to contribute to the Australian exports.’

Ocean cellaring to create unique Australian drops

Rare Foods’ innovation doesn’t stop with its wild-enhanced fishery. The company’s latest venture is ocean cellaring. It is the first business in Australia to undertake this practice. European wineries and Champagne houses have trialled ocean cellaring for some years.

‘The underwater pressure triggers the yeast and starts a secondary fermentation process,’ explains Wilson. ‘It changes the taste profile of the wine or sparkling wine and creates something entirely new.’

Rare Foods submerged hundreds of bottles of sparkling wine 20 metres underwater for a year. These bottles, with a price tag of $220, have seen strong interest. They are expected to sell out within weeks of being made available for sale in early 2023.

‘Domestic sales are fine, but exporting bottles covered in marine growth and barnacles is not feasible,’ says Wilson. ‘To scale this project up, our plan is to age the wine in underwater vats and bottle them on land. We’re working with a number of Margaret River wineries including Glenarty Road to make this happen.

‘Our goal is to age thousands of bottles of wine underwater next year,’ says Wilson. ‘In time, this could turn into another multimillion-dollar export business for us.’

A premium retail experience in Augusta

In late December 2022, RFA launched a high-end retail store called Ocean Pantry so the local Augusta community and tour groups can enjoy its rare and premium produce. The store features a wide selection of its Greenlip and Roei wild abalone and its ocean-cellared wines. The destination will also be home to extensive tours and tasting events. RFA will eventually expand its food and beverage offering and be a local coffee and meeting place for the community and tourist groups.

‘Ocean Pantry is the first of its kind in the area,’ says Wilson. ‘We will use the store as a launchpad for future retail development to get our product and experiences to more people, firstly across Western Australia and then further afield in years to come.

‘Our goal is to match the best of the ocean with the best of the land, offering rare and premium products from the pristine southwest of Western Australia.

‘For us, the future looks very bright. We can’t thank Austrade enough for their support and guidance, navigating a dynamic global marketplace.’

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