Push to kickstart ravaged seafood export trade amid coronavirus restrictions

Katharine Murphy Political editor
Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

The Morrison government will allocate $110m in an effort to restart Australia’s stalled seafood export trade, creating a new freight assistance mechanism to try to recommence local shipments to China, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

The government will appoint Michael Byrne, a former managing director of logistics companies Toll Holdings and Linfox, as coordinator general of international freight. Byrne will work with Austrade, the industry and freight forwarders to work out how freight flights can operate in the current restricted environment where countries have closed their borders to overseas visitors.

With travel bans associated with the coronavirus sending Australia’s seafood export industry into a profound crisis, the government will also confirm on Wednesday that it intends to waive levies for all commonwealth fishers for the remainder of 2020, at a cost of $10m.

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Seafood producers facing financial ruin have been desperate to restart the airfreight supply chain as the Chinese economy begins to recover from the shock of Covid-19. Reports on Tuesday suggest some exports of lobster and coral trout have resumed from Cairns to Hong Kong.

Funding for the rescue package will be drawn from the $1bn regional fund the government established in the first stimulus package in the middle of March. That fund was established to support industries battling the negative economic consequences of the pandemic, such as tourism, agriculture and education.

The government will also increase funding for the existing export market development grants scheme by almost $50m. Grants will help exporters and tourism businesses to get additional reimbursements for costs incurred in marketing their products and services around the world.

Restrictions on global travel to try to curb the spread of the virus have led to the cancellation of the majority of long-haul flights out of Australia. This has delivered a major blow to seafood exporters, and also to producers of red meat, dairy products and some horticulture items.

The travel bans have coincided with reduced demand in key export markets, particularly China, which is a significant buyer of fresh Australian seafood.

The trade minister, Simon Birmingham, said the health crisis was placing “immense” pressure on Australian exporters. He noted local exporters had been dealing with the negative consequences of the coronavirus from the outset because of the collapse in Chinese demand.

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“Getting our export sector back on its feet is crucial to reduce job losses through the crisis and a critical part of the ultimate economic recovery,” Birmingham said in a statement issued ahead of Wednesday’s announcement. “By getting flights off the ground, full of Australian produce, we’re supporting our farmers and fishers who have been hit hard by this crisis.”

Birmingham said temporary action to restart the trade would help producers keep their employees through the downturn. Restarting flights to carry exports would also broaden the range of options available to the government in managing health aspects of the pandemic, he said.

“When these flights return to Australia there will be capacity for them to transport vital medical supplies, medicines and equipment which will be critical to the ongoing health response.”