Crisis looms in sea and forest as China tightens export bans

November 30, 2020

By: The Working Forest Staff

THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD — The customary roar of trucks and harvesting machines across vast softwood plantations astride the Victorian-South Australian border has turned to near silence.

Two weeks ago, crayfishing boats were left moored in the port of Portland as the crayfishing season began.

As China ramps up its assault on Australian exports to include tariffs of up to 200 percent on Australian wine this week, those who harvest the forests and the sea in south-west Victoria and south-east South Australia have been reeling for weeks.

China’s recent trade bans on logs and crayfish are causing a crisis in Portland and what is known as the “green triangle” – a cross-border area rich in 340,000 hectares of plantation forests.

No ships carrying softwood logs have sailed from Portland for more than two weeks, leaving tens of thousands of tonnes of logs stacked around the port and in danger of deteriorating to the point they won’t find a buyer.

More than $70 million of plantation harvesting and haulage equipment is “parked up” for lack of work, according to the chair of the Green Triangle Forest Contractors Group, Wendy Fennell, who is co-owner of one of the biggest forestry industry and transport companies in the area.

Meanwhile, prices for crayfish, also known as southern rock lobsters, have fallen by half compared with last year. Without China as a customer, fishing for the delicacy is no more than a marginal operation, according to fishing operators and lobster marketers.

Chief executive of the Port of Portland Greg Tremewen said China’s ban on logs was putting the economy of the port and the entire green triangle at risk.

“At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars,” Tremewen said. “Thousands of jobs rely on this [forests export] industry … The federal government has to find a way to sort out this problem urgently.”

The managing director of Green Triangle Forest Products, Laurie Hein, estimated more than $100 million of log exports were at risk over 12 months, and about $9 million had already been lost.

The member for Wannon and cabinet minister Dan Tehan – whose electorate covers Portland and a significant part of the green triangle – said he was deeply concerned and would meet the board of the Port of Portland within weeks to discuss the crisis.

He said his senior colleagues in the federal government were seeking to hold China to its free trade and World Trade Organisation obligations and were also looking at ways to assist the forests industry without seriously distorting the market.

At least one shipload of about 30,000 tonnes of logs normally leaves Portland, bound for China, every week.

But the bulk carrier Western Maple was forced on November 12 to unload the cargo of logs it had just loaded at Portland after word came through that China would no longer accept Australian timber.

Its operators did not wish to share the fate of more than 60 ships carrying Australian coal that are stranded at sea – some for more than a month – while China refuses them permission to dock and unload.

No bulk log ship has berthed at Portland since the Western Maple’s experience, leaving harvesting contractors, trucking operators, companies that operate log marshaling facilities, the port itself and associated industries across the green triangle facing disaster.

The ban on logs follows a significant fall this year in the export of hardwood woodchips following the COVID pandemic. The port of Portland is the world’s largest exporter of hardwood chips, almost all of which go to China and Japan.

Industry leaders estimate one in three jobs in the city of Mt Gambier, near the South Australian-Victoria border, are in some way reliant on the timber industry. Mt Gambier’s population is more than 26,000.

China is blaming what it claims is the discovery of bark beetles in some shipments of logs from Australia.

However, the claims relate to container shipments. Portland does not ship containers. All its exports are bulk shipments, none of which have been found to contain the beetles.

China’s ban on crayfish follows what it says were traces of the heavy metal cadmium found in some Australian lobsters. However, cadmium was not found in crayfish in Australia’s southern waters, according to industry leaders.

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