The Lakes Entrance Fishermen's Co-operative Society Limited
In 1961-62 Lakes Entrance Fishermen experienced a period of very low prices. These low prices, combined with an uncertain and unreliable ice supply, and no cool room storage facilities, resulted in fishing boats being tied to the wharf instead of fishing. Fish, being a perishable product, had to be dispatched when landed. This often resulted in an over-supply of fish with fishermen often receiving a bill instead of a return because the selling price did not cover the agent’s and freight costs.
The Co-operative, at that time, was called the Victorian Fishermen’s Co-Operative Limited which was incorporated in 1956 and was solely a service co-operative providing a radio service and limited gear store facilities. Fish were consigned to the auction markets in wooden boxes provided by fish agents. The icing, handling and loading of fish for the market was carried out by the cartage contractor.
Formation of a NEW Co-operative
Several trawler owners got together and were determined that the above problems could mainly be overcome by providing a cool storage facility, an assured ice supply and the establishment of a co-ordinated and orderly marketing system. Hence, the Lakes Entrance Fishermen’s Co-operative Society Limited, known as LEFCOL, was incorporated on the 21st August 1964.
A new plant was built on Bullock Island and included unloading jetties, conveyor belts to the weighing and icing area, cool room, ice making machine, ice storage room, ice delivery equipment and administration offices. The cost of the new facility was approximately $160,000 and the premises were officially opened by the Honorable Sir Henry Bolte on the 23rd October 1968.
The commencement of operations at Bullock Island ushered in a new era in the handling and marketing of fish. Because there was an assured ice supply, rules were introduced to ensure that all fish were adequately ices at sea. Hygienic plastic fish bins were provided by the Co-operative instead of the wooden fish boxes previously supplied by agents. After consultation with buyers and fish agents, daily catch quotas were set to minimise over-supplying. The new jetties and conveyors provided more convenient and faster unloading facilities and, for the first time, all fish were weighed when unloaded. Once the fish were weighed they were immediately re-iced and stored in a refrigerated cool room.
All of these changes resulted in a significant improvement in the quality of fish consigned to market. It also left fishermen free to concentrate on fishing and to leave the problems of marketing, freight and ice production to the Co-operative.
Fish Processing and additional plant
A fish processing section was added to the Bullock Island plant in 1974. This provided and additional outlet as fish caught in excess of market requirements were processed into frozen fillets. These were then sold when fish supplies were scarce.
In 1979 a second ice maker was installed, the unloading area extended, a public viewing area provided and a truck loading bay enclosed. Further extensions, comprising a Gear Store, Seafood Supermarket, Canteen, Workshop and new Administration Offices were completed in 1982.
The Co-operative’s processing area was registered with the Australian Quarantine & Inspection Service (AQIS) for export. Frozen school whiting was then exported to Japan from 1969 (prior to 1986 it was processed in the now non-existent Heinz processing factory next to the Co-operative). In the early 2000’s exports reduced to approx. 200 tonnes pa as a result of the strengthening Australian dollar and increased production costs. As a result of this and the strengthening Australian demand for local fresh fish the Co-Operative underwent a shift in directional policy to carry out additional value adding for its products on a national basis.
A few years of investment and research and the Co-Operative (in January 2017) now has an automatic filleting machine, a local custom designed and made fish singulator and grader for School Whiting (grades and fillets 3 fish per second), quadrupled its fileting staff as well as adding jobs for pack and process areas. Processed product is generally sold fresh along the east coast of Australia via its association with its new national wholesale agent PFD. In addition to the fresh range the Co-Operative has introduced a battered and crumbed range of school whiting fillets. This has been enthusiastically received by both retail and wholesale customers. November 2016 saw the reopening of the Co-Operatives retail shop (Off The Wharf) back at the Bullock Island complex. Consumer demand for fresh food purchases at the point of supply and an enhanced public viewing area has lead this to be a prime tourist attraction.
The measures the Co-operative and its members have taken over the years has led to a high reputation and commitment to freshness and quality and as a consequence, have been able to meet the very stringent Australian and overseas export quality standards.
In 2005 the Commonwealth Government carried out a concession buyout that result in 21 licences being lost to the port of Lakes Entrance. Part of the package included onshore Business assistance in an attempt to offset the impacts experienced as a result of the reductions. LEFCOL was fortunate to obtain $1 million in funding to replace its ageing Ice manufacturing infrastructure. The total project cost approx. $1.3 million and included new efficient systems including three 10 tonne Ice machines.
Seafood Industry Icon Award sponsored by Seafood Industry Victoria
Lakes Entrance Fishermens Co-operative Limited was awarded the Icon Award in 2009 for being recognised as the major voice with both State and Commonwealth governments and advancing the fishing industry and facilities at Lakes Entrance.