Saving dolphins trawls in net profits

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Being an entrepreneur on the Sunshine Coast would seem to tick many boxes as a sea change destination — beautiful location, community spirit and a local culture supporting innovation.

Former sports management entrepreneur James Turner concurs. Turner, who spent 20 years in Europe based in Milan, says: “You miss the laid-back Australian way.”

His Sunshine Coast-based venture, Fumunda, is developing and marketing the $100 “pinger”, a device that might save many dolphins from excruciating death as by-catch in fishing nets.

He says it emits a signal that deters dolphins, porpoises and whales from commercial fishing gear.

“As a surfer growing up in Australia, you hate seeing all those dolphins and porpoises lost as a result of entanglement in commercial fishing,” he says. “It brought me back home.”

Barely a year into commercialising the technology, the company is achieving revenue, with orders from Queensland’s Department of Primary Industry for use on shark nets, and from Ocean Watch, a national environmental not-for-profit company that works to achieve sustainability in the seafood industry.

The venture has achieved some important milestones, with distributorships signed up for potentially lucrative international markets and an expansion in the range of products to four models. Turner says manufacturing, currently carried out in Thailand, has been significantly upgraded to cater for future expansion.

By-catch accounts for about 300,000 dolphins and porpoises a year as a result of entanglement in commercial fishing equipment. Pingers, when bound to the nets, deter marine mammals because the sound is picked up by their sonar-like sensor system.

“They try to avoid it,” Turner says. Pingers are mandatory in the US and parts of Europe. “The fishers have to use them over there. The devices were tested with success rates of up to 90 per cent.”

A longtime surfer and snowboarder, Turner felt “burnt out” by his European business experience. “I sold my business, I sold my chalet. I’d made a good living doing something I really loved.”

He says his 20-year stint was founded on his capacity to deal effectively with multinationals such as Nokia, Pepsi and Valentines, which wanted to reach the GenY market.

“As a snowboarder, they saw me as link to the 18 and 19-year-olds. That’s how I got into the sports marketing business.”

On his return to Queensland, he was offered a business development role for Fumunda by the inventor of the device. “A lifelong interest in marine conservation piqued my interest. I saw a market opportunity. Here was an effective solution. I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t one in every fishing net.”

Turner acquired a “near-defunct” business to secure the technology. “You could say I liked the product so much I bought the company. If we can’t address those issues with charismatic fauna — dolphins, porpoises and whales — then what hope do we have? That’s really what drove me.”

Passion may have driven his decision, but Turner is under no illusions about his bottom line. The market potential for pingers is relatively easy to assess. Creating a demand for the product and raising the capital are bigger challenges.

“Literally you calculate the number of vessels operating around the world — that gives you your total market. We know there are 1680 relevant licences in Australia, I worked out how many nets and how long the nets were and you arrive at a very accurate number.

In Australia we need 12,000 pingers to fit out every vessel. Then you extrapolate the cost, let’s say it’s $100 a unit. That’s $1.2 million — not a lot of money to save dolphins and porpoises across Australia.”