How a deathbed promise made Lukina a bluefin tuna mogul

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When tuna industry pioneer Dinko Lukin lay on his deathbed, he made his wife Lukina promise that she would never sell his prized 200-tonne southern bluefin tuna quota.

That was eight years ago.

Key points

  • Lukina Lukin is a tuna mogul whose husband Dinko pioneered a system for ranching the prized fish
  • On his deathbed, Lukina promised Dinko she would not sell his prized 200-tonne southern bluefin quota, despite the company struggling to stay afloat
  • A portion of this season’s catch will be earmarked for the domestic market for the first time in the history of the company

Today, Dinko Tuna Farmers is owned and run by Ms Lukin — the only woman running a tuna farm in one of the nation’s most lucrative and traditionally male-dominated frontiers — the southern bluefin tuna industry.

After making the promise to her 76-year-old husband Ms Lukin struggled to stay afloat under a mountain of debt, but now Dinko Tuna Farmers is not only still in business, but making crucial inroads into the domestic market for the first time in its history.

“I told him I would try my best to keep it going and if I can’t be successful then I will lease it, because he had leased the tuna quota out before,” Ms Lukin said.

“I tried my best and I am still farming today.”

Ms Lukin worked hard for years to clear all the company’s multi-million-dollar debt and only when there was nothing owed did she celebrate by buying herself a sports car.

Ms Lukin, who lives in Port Lincoln — home of the tuna moguls — said she was excited about selling a portion of this season’s catch to the domestic market for the first time.

“We’ve got a good product here and we export to overseas, so why not open the market in Australia?” Ms Lukin said.

Making the most of quotas

Like most tuna-fishing companies, Dinko has had to work within the parameters set by fishing quotas.

In the late 1980s quotas were introduced by a joint Japanese, Australia and New Zealand agreement after overfishing.

The catch peaked at 80,000 tonnes in the 1960s and the quotas capped it at 13,000 tonnes.

The industry has limited stakeholders who hold shares of the 6,165-tonne quota allocated to Australia, and more than 90 per cent is caught and farmed in the waters off Port Lincoln.

Today, Australia’s tuna ranchers catch their wild-tuna quota, and then hold them in sea pontoons and feed them to fatten up the fish, increasing their weight and therefore profit.

It was Dinko Lukin who helped to pioneer the ranching system.

Dinko Tuna Farmers is the smallest player with 200 tonnes of the Australian quota.

The quality of the fish and its rarity make it a luxury item for the Japanese sashimi market, but there is also huge domestic potential.

A new domestic market for southern bluefin

The company supplied sample pieces to chefs in Sydney last Christmas — when traditionally there is no fresh southern bluefin tuna available.

Sydney-based fish marketer John Susman, of Fishtales, said the response from chefs was positive.

“What they have done is use minus freezing [temperatures], using contemporary technology, to increase its stability and to maintain quality consistently, which is needed for the market,” Mr Susman said.

Brian Jeffriess, from the Australian Tuna Boat Owners’ Association, said Ms Lukin was leading the industry in trying to find other markets.

“The area that we’ve never really focused properly on is the domestic market and that’s exactly what Lukina’s doing,” Mr Jeffriess said.

“It’s really significant.

“We are overdependent on the Japanese market and overdependent on the yen itself, which we normally get paid in.

“We’ve diversified into some other export markets: Korea and China at this stage, but they are tough going.”

Looking to the future

Now Ms Lukin’s dream is to see southern bluefin tuna on the menu in restaurants and even on supermarket shelves across Australia in the future.

This year Ms Lukin is investing $1.2 million in upgrades at Dinko Tuna Farmers to value-add to her product.

The factory upgrade is expected to be ready by the middle of the year when she will use the freezing technology to develop her restaurant-ready southern bluefin products.

“I guess when the opportunity comes, I take it — sometimes it feel goods that you can invest in something,” Ms Lukin said.

Ms Lukin, who went to sea for three seasons catching tuna with Dinko in the Great Australian Bight, in the early years of their marriage garnered the support of her peers in the male-dominated industry.

Mr Jeffriess said she was “very, very brave”.

“What we’ve tried to do — even out on the fishing ground and in the farms — is take the macho out of it all, but keep the romance and inject business skills into it,” Mr Jeffriess said.

“And that’s clearly what Lukina has: those business skills and the absolute determination to see through the difficult times and hopefully benefit from the good times.”

It’s all a long way from the rice fields of Thailand where she was raised by her grandmother after her single mum went to work in Bangkok as a nanny, bringing money home each month.

She met Dinko in Port Lincoln while on a year-long teacher exchange from Thailand.

She was 31 and he was 62 when they married in 1997 and their age difference was a talking point both in Thailand and in Port Lincoln.

It was not the most welcoming of starts for Ms Lukin, who stayed home for about the first year avoiding gossip about the marriage.

But she was devoted to her husband, changing her name from Lakkana to Lukina, meaning “belonging to Lukin”.

Considered a genius for his inventiveness and known as the “Einstein of the tuna industry”, Dinko was at one time reported to be worth more than $80 million.

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