AS THE sun rose over Mooloolaba this morning, a precious haul was being unloaded from two boats docked at the wharf behind Parkyn Pde.
By this afternoon, the boatloads of wild-caught tuna will be on planes to Los Angeles, Boston and Hawaii after being unloaded, sorted and graded and trucked to Brisbane Airport.
Walker Seafoods Australia runs the largest wild-caught tuna fishery in Australia, and has the only sustainable yellowfin tuna fishing practice in the world certified by the globally recognised Marine Stewardship Council.
Most of its product is exported overseas to markets where people pay top-dollar for sustainably caught fish.
"I'm fielding calls every day from Europe and America wanting our fish, and I just don't have enough to give," Walker Seafoods co-owner Heidi Walker said.
The MSC logo allows fish lovers - from home cooks to retailers and chefs - to identify fish that has been caught without threatening the health of the fish species and its ecosystem.
This safeguards the species - the industry that relies on it - against overfishing, while providing transparency about the origin of fish to the consumer.
Walker Seafoods Australia won this year's Sunshine Coast Business Award - Agribusiness, in recognition of its contribution to local employment, its marketing and exporting success.
The Mooloolaba-based business employs 40 locals and regularly uses about 50 tradespeople to maintain and repair equipment, and attracts overseas seafood buyers to Mooloolaba where they inevitably support other businesses, Heidi said.
"These people we sell to are now coming here," she said. "They'd never been to Mooloolaba before.
"We share the love a bit - get them to see the prawn guys while they're here."
The business began in 2001 after Heidi's husband Pavo, who had worked at the Sydney Ports Corporation and as a skipper, decided to buy a fishing boat and start commercial fishing.
Over the coming decade the Walkers learned the ropes and established a successful business, but they also saw many fishing businesses collapse as the Australian dollar fell, making fuel too expensive for many operators to afford to send boats out, and to export their product, Heidi said.
She remembers when there were 100 boats using the Eastern Tuna Billfish Fishery, which stretches from the tip of Cape York around the entire east coast of Australia, south including waters surrounding all sides of Tasmania, and into South Australia.
"There used to be 100 boats in this fishery, one of which was ours. Now there are 25," Heidi said.
Heidi said it was a shame the majority (75%) of seafood consumed in Australia is imported, when our fisheries are the "best managed in the world".
Certification through MSC was a rigorous and expensive process, but Heidi and Pavo knew it would give them an edge in an export market that's dominated by cheap fish from uncertified fisheries, mainly in Vietnam, China and international waters around the Asian continent.
"On a worldwide market, we're competing against boats from Vietnam; China," Heidi said. "I didn't want to compete on price.
"I knew if we went through MSC we'd open up a lot more markets and guarantee we survived.
"People these days are very conscious of where their seafood comes from - I think people are a lot more educated around produce these days."
She said food security was a big issue, and buyers in Europe and America would pay good money for MSC certified fish.
"People in Australia are wising up to where their food comes from too, and whether it's a good idea to be putting it in their body."
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