Salmon's popularity running wild

04 Feb, 2016 01:00 AM
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While millions of Australians tucked into traditional servings of ham and poultry over Christmas, one of the fastest growing inclusions in our summer holiday season diet in the past decade has been salmon.

Tasmanian salmon, once a seasonal delicacy mostly limited to restaurant menus, is now served up regularly in Australian homes all year, with a quarter of the population aged over 14 eating the low fat, protein and omega-3 rich seafood weekly.

Supermarket chains now continuously stock an array of fresh and smoked salmon cuts and canned lines, thanks largely to the innovative production and marketing initiatives of a burgeoning "farmed" salmonoid industry.

Consumer sales have rocketed to more than $900 million annually with the domestic market growing more than 10 per cent annually in the past five years.

Leading the pack is aquaculture business Tassal, which just 13 years ago was struggling to survive, producing 5000 tonnes of fish a year.

Now harvesting about 27,000t of farmed Atlantic salmon (60pc of Tasmania's farmed output), Tassal's net profit jumped 22pc to about $50m in 2014-15, confirming its spot as one of the Australian Securities Exchange's (ASX) top agribusiness performers.

Also named the world's best seafood company in last year's international Seafood Intelligence report on sustainability and transparency practices, Hobart-based Tassal is chaired by Victorian farmer and long-time grain industry identity Allan McCallum from Kerang.

Mr McCallum, who is also on Rabobank's advisory board cut his teeth in corporate agribusiness as a farmer delegate on the board of Victoria's privatised grain elevator business Vicgrain (later GrainCorp) and former fertiliser co-operative, Pivot (later Incitec Pivot).

In a slightly unusual career move for the former Dookie Agricultural College graduate and irrigated grain and hay producer, he was recruited to a due diligence team looking at the prospect of refloating Tassal after it was placed in receivership in 2003.

Although hot summer-related production losses and a global salmon glut had sent domestic prices and earnings tumbling in the early 2000s, a $42m injection of new shareholder funds enabled Tassal's re-emergence with agribusiness investment specialist David Williams as chairman and Mr McCallum a director.

The refloated outfit's new lease of life included a merger with rival fish farmer Nortas, creating Australia's largest Atlantic salmon business, followed by a $42m 2005 takeover of Webster group's Aquatas, which lifted annual sales to $130m.

Last year Tassal significantly boosted its business footprint again buying De Costi Seafoods, one of NSW's biggest wholesale and retail seafood market for $50m, plus shares.

Mr McCallum, who became chairman shortly after the Aquatas deal back in 2005, said De Costi gave Tassal good options to access new business in Australia's $4.3 billion annual seafood market, including a chance to support significant retail market growth for seafood in eastern Australian and South Australia.

"Seafood could be a far bigger part of the total supermarket offering, for a start," he said.

"More shoppers are looking for lighter meal offerings so there's a demand there which needs servicing."

Tassal planned to take advantage of the breeding, production and marketing strategies it had deployed to lead growth in Australia's salmon business, adapting its experience to other species, including prawns and barramundi.

From its seven marine farms the company achieves industry-leading productivity in the 14 months it takes to grow salmon in 300 polar circles floating in chilly, pristine waters off Tasmania's south east coast and in Macquarie Harbour.

About 8 million young fish (smolt) bred at its two hatcheries and a third jointly owned facility are released annually at about 11 months of age into the 120-metre diametre feeding pens.

They grow to an average four or 4.5 kilograms before being processed at three southern Tasmanian plants.

With commitments for branded and generic salmon locked in with all major domestic retailers and sales growing solidly - incuding turnover at Tassal's own Hobart and Melbourne stores - the company can only afford to export about 20pc of its fish.

Much of those offshore sales are salmon grown out to almost 7kg for the premium-paying Japanese sushi market.

"We're lucky to be relatively well buffered from the volatility and competition in wholesale global markets by a strong domestic market that shows no signs of slowing down," Mr McCallum said.

Feed conversion superstar

When it comes to growth rates and feed conversion achievements the salmon business makes the rest of Australia's livestock industries look like rank underperformers.

Every 1.3 kilograms of feed pellets consumed by Tassal's selectively bred schools of smolt salmon, produces a kilogram of weight.

That's well ahead of the next most efficient performer, the chicken meat industry, which needs 1.8kg of feed to produce 1kg of weight and feedlot cattle which require about 8kg of feed.

Tassal's feed conversion ratios are only marginally behind the world's best achieved by Norwegian salmon farms and creeping higher with help from its careful attention to fish genetics and breeding selection strategies honed by the mainstream livestock sector.

The company has spent about $200 million on upgrading its research, sustainable production and processing capacity in the past two years and expects to spend a further $40m to $50m annually in the next few years.

Tassal has also worked in partnership with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF Australia)to become the world's only salmon farming operation to have all of its production sites accredited by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council - the highest standard available for seafood farming.

Its fish feed requirement totals about 40,000 tonnes annually, much of it sourced from grain (notably de-hulled lupins) and canola meal and chicken fat brought from the mainland.

Greatly valued as a regional employer Tassal has Tasmania's second biggest workforce totalling about 950, plus another 50 in sales and marketing roles in Victoria.

- ANDREW MARSHALL

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FarmOnline
Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall

is the national agribusiness writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
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READER COMMENTS

Jock Munro
4/02/2016 4:13:55 AM

Grain growers will note that Alan McCallum has left a legacy of privatisations within their industry which has resulted in them losing all equity in the market place.
David Hill
4/02/2016 6:37:31 AM

Wild salmon has a close to ideal balance of fatty acids, it is my understanding that the balance is effected if they are fed grain and seed oils, I am sure the consumers would be interested to learn that farmed salmon are fed chicken fat also? what would that do to the level of omega 3's?
Philip Downie
4/02/2016 2:03:52 PM

Having just been to Canada these are nothing like wild salmon. A pale imitation.

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