Court hears of abalone disaster's personal cost
After years of working up to 15 hours a day in hotels, Valerie Halliday thought she would enjoy her twilight years in comfort when she bought an abalone licence.
Instead she has had to sell her home, her antique furniture and car after a herpes-like virus decimated a third of Australia's wild abalone industry.
Mrs Halliday, 82, was the first witness called in the $82 million class action by abalone licence holders against the Victorian government. She had bought an abalone licence in 1999 for $4.25 million as a seemingly sound investment.
"I was working probably 12, 15 hours a day," she told a Supreme Court trial this week. "We were open to 7am . . . in one of the hotels, the longest licensing hours in Australia." The need to quit the hotel business became more pressing after her son, Gregory, was killed.
Mrs Halliday employed a diver, who in turn paid a deckhand, who caught the abalone off Victoria's south-west coast, while she enjoyed her retirement in Taroona, south of Hobart.
Three years after Mrs Halliday bought the licence she received an $8 million offer from Melbourne Shipbrokers to buy it, which she rejected. "The word was it would reach $10 million," she said.
The licence was generating gross earnings of about $800,000 to $1 million a year, while putting $300,000 before tax annually into Mrs Halliday's purse.
But in early 2006, the herpes-like virus escaped from the Southern Ocean Mariculture farm, off Port Fairy.
The class action alleges that the government failed to control the spread of the disease, which has wiped out wild abalone stocks from the Victorian-South Australian border to Cape Otway. As the catch dwindled, so did Mrs Halliday's capacity to pay her $24,000-a-month interest-only loan repayments.
In 2011, she was forced to sell her home of 35 years for $1.7 million.
The Victorian government gave her special and exploratory permits to increase her licence's three-tonne quota, but they had run out.
Defence counsel Michael Wheelahan, SC, asked Mrs Halliday if it was fair to say those permits had been of no real value to her.
"It probably gave us up to half a tonne more fish in the year, which was not to be sneezed at," she said.
The trial continues.
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