Goolwa PipiCo has partnered with the indigenous Ngarrindjeri people to process and market their wild caught pipis around Australia and the world.
The company is based in South Australia and harvests its Southern Ocean pipis along the pristine beaches of the Coorong, near the mouth of Australia’s largest river, The Murray.
Goolwa PipiCo currently processes about 400 tonnes of pipis a year, about half of Australia’s total commercial pipi catch. The majority is sold live through wet markets and wholesalers before being served up on restaurant plates in Sydney and Melbourne. However, the development of modified atmosphere packaging in 2014 has allowed the pipis to be sold in 1kg supermarket packs that have a 10-day shelf life, double that of loose product.
Managing Director Tom Robinson said Goolwa PipiCo was the only consumer-facing producer that marketed pipi under a brand in Australia and had national distribution through Woolworths and Costco.
He said the longer shelf life also created export opportunities.
“Up until then everything had been sold loose – we now sell over a quarter of all our catch in that packaged format,” Robinson said.
“The most important thing it does is it allows a retailer to put it in front of a customer in a pack that’s not going to leak on their way home and we can brand it and people start to rely on the brand.
“The Chinese market in particular places a premium on brands – they’ll pay good money for wine or beef with a strong brand and we don’t think our pipis should be any different – they are harvested from the same pristine waters as our Southern Rock Lobster, which is an ultra-premium product sold into Asia.”
Goolwa PipiCo was incorporated in 2014 and is a collaboration between five fishing families in the Goolwa region near the River Murray mouth in South Australia.
It handles 60 per cent of South Australia’s total allowable catch, which is set at 650 tonnes in 2019. South Australian pipis account for about 75 per cent of Australia’s commercial pipi fishery. The pipi are harvested along a 70km stretch of Coorong coast by about 15 fishermen using rakes.
The area is one of the few clam fisheries in the world with Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification recognising sustainable practices and a commitment to maintaining the region’s pristine natural environment.
The pipi are then processed in the nearby seaside town of Port Elliot, about 80km south of the South Australian capital Adelaide.
Last month Goolwa PipiCo was promised up to $489,335 by the South Australian government to expand its operation to process and package extra wild catch pipis supplied by Ngarrindjeri fishers.
The Ngarrindjeri people have harvested pipi on the Coorong coast for 10,000 years but this is their first foray into commercial clam fishing.
Robinson said the Ngarrindjeri hoped to expand its quota from its current level of 5 per cent of the fishery over time. This would take the Goolwa PipiCo’s share of the market in South Australia to up to 90 per cent and almost 70 per cent nationally.
“Our new partners the Ngarrindjeri are wanting to acquire more quota in the fishery and we will need extra processing capacity to meet the demand of the extra catch but also it will allow us to explore other products that are currently under development including a smoked pipi and a clam chowder,” he said.
“We think we can both get a lot from it and already we’re starting to develop products with other native ingredients such as samphire that the Ngarrindjeri are producing in other businesses.”
Commonly known in South Australia as cockles, pipi were used almost exclusively as fishing bait until the introduction of a quota system in 2008 effectively halved supply.
Robinson said introducing pipi to Australian consumers as a premium seafood had been crucial to growing the business.
“We believe that we’ve played a significant role in changing people’s perception of the pipi. The companies that are in Goolwa Pipi Co used to sell 100 per cent of their product as bait and now we sell less than 15 per cent,” Robinson said.
South Australia is world renowned for producing premium seafood including Southern Bluefin Tuna, Abalone, Oysters, Prawns, Kingfish and Southern Rock Lobster in pristine waters fed by the Southern Ocean.
Robinson said this clean-green story was an important sales pitch for Goolwa PipiCo particularly as it looked to grow exports to Europe and Asia.
“Our clean, cold water is really important as a lot of the clams in the world are grown in warmer waters and they are quite often grown in very polluted waters – as filter feeders that’s not ideal,” he said.
“We compete in a really competitive global market where there are really low value clams coming out of Asia and other parts of the world so it’s a real commodity market.
“We’re exploring markets in Europe and Asia now and selling relatively small amounts there.”
While the majority of pipi eaten in Australia is by people from an Asian background, Robinson said this was changing rapidly.
“As people’s palates mature and restaurants start experimenting with new products we hope more opportunities will come,” Robinson said.
“The challenge is not so much where we are now, it’s to remain the new exciting thing but as the value of seafood generally increases as a super premium product, ours is still relatively affordable in a very expensive category.”