Western Australia’s cray fishers say they are “treading water” over whether the Chinese government will lift a punishing three-year trade ban on their catch.

Their hopes have been raised after Beijing’s commerce ministry announced last week that heavy tariffs on Australian wine would end, prompting celebration from local winemakers.

The tariffs were part of trade barriers China placed on about $20 billion of Australian exports almost four years ago. 

Heavy restrictions have slowly been unwinding, but blocks on trade of western rock lobster and beef remain in place.

There have been no direct live lobster exports from Australia to China since 2020, when a $2 million shipment was stuck on the Shanghai tarmac after China’s customs agency alleged the lobsters were contaminated.

In November Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Trade Minister Don Farrell visited China to attend a trade expo in Shanghai, where they posed for journalists with WA lobster. 

Despite predictions at the time from Mr Farrell that the lobster trade would resume before Christmas, the industry remains in limbo. 

Western Rock Lobster has been a popular choice for people celebrating the Lunar New Year

The western rock lobster is said to be selling through “unofficial channels” while China’s live export ban stands.  (ABC: Chris Lewis)

Waiting game

Lancelin cray fisherman Benjamin Prideaux said seeing bans imposed by China being lifted made him hopeful for his industry, but he still had reservations. 

“We’re sitting here with our fingers crossed, but at the same time not holding our breath,” he said. 

“[When the ban occurred] we were hopeful it was only temporary, but it hasn’t been, and we’ve just sort of been treading water.” 

Although live exports to China were restricted, it was believed Australia’s rock lobster was still getting to the country. 

Trade experts said the product was entering China through unofficial channels” and Mr Prideaux said that could be contributing to the delayed lift on restrictions. 

“All we know is the amount of crays being sold to Hong Kong and Vietnam is through the roof,” he said. 

China was a major customer of the Australian rock lobster industry, and Mr Prideaux said losing the demand impacted fishers. 

“We’re not going broke but it’s definitely taken away the incentive for all the hard work we do.” 

Man in cap and polo shirt smiling, in front of a boat

Dongara-based rock lobster fisherman Bruce Cockman.  (ABC Midwest Wheatbelt: Jo Prendergast )

Uncertain future

Although live exports are banned, Australia can still ship frozen rock lobster to China. 

But Dongara cray fisherman Bruce Cockman said this came at a cost. 

“Even though we can sell to China at times, during peak periods when we could process a lot, we just don’t have the infrastructure or staff to do it,” he said. 

“Because it costs a lot of money to process and freeze it, there’s not enough freezing capacity in WA.

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