Agriculture, forestry and fishing

Economic contribution | Agriculture | Horticulture | Fisheries | Forestry | Explanatory Notes

Economic contribution

The agriculture, forestry and fishing industry contributes to employment and economic activity in the regional and remote areas of the Northern Territory (NT). The industry also has important linkages with other sectors of the economy, including retail and wholesale trade, manufacturing and transport.

In 2016‑17, the agriculture, forestry and fishing industry accounted for 2.9% of the NT’s GSP. The industry’s output can, however, vary significantly from year to year due to changes in production as well as seasonal conditions and changes in global and domestic demand for NT commodities.

Employment figures for the agriculture, forestry and fishing industry in the NT, as reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), can be highly volatile due to the small sample size of the labour force survey, especially in regional areas. In 2016‑17, the agriculture, forestry and fishing industry accounted for 1.4% of total employment in the NT, which is an increase of 0.7 percentage points compared to 2015-16.

In 2015-16, the share of total employment in the NT for the agriculture, forestry and fishing industry was below 1.0% for the first time. The proportion has recovered since, accounting for 1.4% of GSP, although remains below the 10-year average.

Map 1: Northern NT Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing1 (click to enlarge)

Map 1

1  This map is produced from various sources. Department of Treasury and Finance cannot guarantee the accuracy, currency, or completeness of the information. To be used as a guide only.
Source: Department of Treasury and Finance; Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries


Live Cattle

The cattle industry is important to the NT economy, with the industry generating expenditure on cattle transport, stock feed, wages, port charges and demand for services such as quarantine inspection and veterinary requirements. In turn, this provides significant employment opportunities, particularly in regional parts of the NT, along with substantial export income, which supports regional economic growth.

The live cattle industry in the NT consists of live cattle exported internationally and interstate. In 2016‑17, about 513,600 head of live cattle were exported to overseas markets and interstate (Chart 1). This was a decline of 8.9% (49,907 head) compared to the previous year, which was mostly driven by a drop in international live cattle exports. International live cattle trade figures do not include NT cattle exported through ports outside the NT. The ABS estimates that the value of livestock slaughtered and other disposals in 2016‑17 was around $465 million in the NT, which equates to 1.2% of the total value of livestock slaughtered nationally over the same period.

International Live Cattle Exports

The NT exports live cattle to a number of countries, most of which are located in Asia. Indonesia is the NT’s largest overseas destination, accounting for 82.5% (169,540 head) of live cattle exports in 2016‑17 (Chart 2). Other significant overseas export destinations for NT cattle include Vietnam, which accounted for 12.1% (24,923 head), and Malaysia, which accounted for 4.3% (8,845 head).

In 2016‑17, international live cattle exports from the NT decreased by 20.0% to 205,426 head, which continues the downward trend observed in the previous year. The decline was mainly driven by decreases in live cattle exports to Vietnam (down 23,960 head) and to Indonesia (down 14,558 head), and no exports to the Philippines (down 10,853).

Live cattle exports to Indonesia have continued to decrease from the recent high of 341,759 head in 2015 to 226,304 in 2017. This is due to the high cost of cattle raising the retail cost of beef, leading to reduced demand. In response, Indonesia allowed the import of frozen buffalo meat in 2016 as a substitute for low value beef products. An average of 80,000 tonnes per year of frozen Indian buffalo meat is imported to Indonesia, which was equivalent to 400,000 head of live cattle, or about half of Indonesia’s cattle imports.

Vietnam is the NT’s second largest live cattle export destination. However, in 2016‑17, live cattle exports to Vietnam declined by 49.0% to 24,923 head. The decreasing trend in Vietnam is part of moderating demand as the market is relatively new and is in the process of adjusting to a sustainable level.

The high cost of live cattle is likely the reason no live cattle were exported to the Philippines in 2016-17, dropping from 10,853 head in 2015-16. Nationally, live exports to the Philippines dropped by 80-90% while frozen and chilled beef exports, a cheaper substitute to live cattle, increased by 18% and 8% respectively in 2017. Another detracting factor are Philippine exports shipped out of Townsville, which would not be captured in figures for the Port of Darwin.

Interstate Live Cattle

In 2016‑17, the number of NT cattle sent interstate marginally increased by 0.5% to 308,146 head. This was driven by a 28.7% increase in live cattle exports to Queensland (193,205 head), which was largely offset by declines to all other jurisdictions. Parts of Queensland emerged from years of drought, leading to increased demand for NT cattle to restock their herds. The increased cattle movement to Queensland could also be attributed to companies in the Barkly region sending young cattle to be raised on Queensland properties after years of not doing so.

The biggest detractor was Victoria, which moderated from a one-off high of 48,039 head in 2015-16 to 20,882 head in 2016-17, which is close to the 10-year average of 19,799 head. Queensland remained the NT’s largest interstate live cattle destination, accounting for 62.7% of all NT cattle transported interstate. South Australia was the second largest export destination, with a share of 19.1% (58,704 head). The remaining NT cattle were sent to Victoria (20,882 head), Western Australia (19,697 head) and New South Wales (15,658 head) (Chart 3).

In 2016‑17, the number of live cattle sent to the NT decreased by 15.5% to 166,796 head. The majority of live cattle imports to the NT were from Queensland, which accounted for 75.5% (125,988 head) of interstate imports. The remaining live cattle came from Western Australia (37,448 head), South Australia (2,335 head), New South Wales (958 head) and Victoria (67 head).

Other Livestock

Boxed Beef

NT boxed beef production from the Australian Agricultural Company (AACo) is anticipated to cease, following the recent announcement that it moves to shut down its abattoir in the near future, as a result of the current market of high cattle prices, falling demand and a tightening in supply.

In 2016-17, a total of 34,627 head of cattle were processed at NT abattoirs compared to 38,975 head in the previous year. Up to 11,470 tonnes were shipped internationally from the NT in 2016‑17. The United States of America (US) was the NT’s main export destination, accounting for 53.1% of exports. Other markets include a number of Asian countries, which accounted for 43.8% of boxed beef exports.


Other livestock production in the NT is dominated by crocodile production. NT crocodiles are highly valued for their skins, which are used in the production of high‑end market fashion accessories such as handbags, belts, shoes, wallets, jewellery, entire skins and other fashion items. Australia accounts for 60% of the global trade in saltwater crocodile skins.

In 2016‑17, total revenue from the NT’s crocodile industry was about $23 million, a decrease of $7 million from the previous financial year. Due to stricter grading standards, there were fewer first grade crocodile skins sold in 2016-17, while a greater quantity were classified as lower grade skins. Around 50.3% of this revenue was generated from the production of first grade skins (Chart 4). Around 44 full‑time, permanent employees and a further 44 casual employees were employed in crocodile farms in the NT in 2016‑17.

Under the Crocodile Wildlife Trade Management Plan 2016‑2020 (WTMP), the NT Government plans to reduce regulatory red tape and provide certainty around quotas. The WTMP supports the growth of the industry by allowing an annual harvest ceiling of 90,000 viable eggs and 1,200 animals a year, doubling the number of saltwater crocodiles that can be harvested from the wild.


Live buffalo is an emerging export for the NT which has been showing signs of strong growth in 2017. Buffalo exports from the Port of Darwin increased by 71.2% to 9,916 in 2017, the highest annual number on record (Chart 5). Since resuming live buffalo trade with Malaysia in mid-2016, live buffalo exports to the nation have tripled in 2017. Malaysia now accounts for 37.1% of total live buffalo exports (3,682 head). Similarly, Indonesia lifted its suspension of live buffalo exports from Australia in early 2017, importing 1,229 head from the Port of Darwin and accounting for 12.4% of all overseas live buffalo exports from the NT. Before the 2011 suspension, around 3,000 head of buffalo per year were exported to Indonesia. The largest importer of live buffalo is still Vietnam, accounting for 40.4% of total live buffalo exports (4,008 head) in 2017.


The NT horticultural industry is comprised of fruit, vegetables, nursery products, turf and hay. Almost all production is sold interstate. According to the NT Farmers Association, the value of horticulture production in the NT was estimated at $253 million in 2016, growing by $9 million compared to the previous year. The total value of horticultural production for 2016 is comprised of:

The NT mango industry accounted for 34.9% of the total value of farming production (not including forestry). In 2016, mango production in the NT increased by 3,200 tonnes to 29,700 tonnes compared to the previous year. However, despite increased production, the total value of mangoes sold declined by $200,000 to $88.3 million. This change could be attributed to above average temperatures delaying production. Likewise, production of melons in 2016 increased by 5,400 tonnes to 56,400 tonnes, but gross value produced fell by $2.3 million to $50.3 million.

In October 2017, a shipment of mangoes was exported from Darwin to Singapore for the first time in about a decade. Instead of transporting mangoes to Brisbane to be flown to Singapore, the direct flight gives growers ready access to a new market.

National Banana Freckle Eradication Program

The production of bananas reduced significantly over the past few years due to the destructive outbreak of the banana freckle disease. The $26 million National Banana Freckle Eradication Program finalised the distribution of 7,500 sentinel banana plants to 3,215 properties in areas where banana freckle was originally found. These sentinel plants were intended to detect if the plant disease was still present in soils inside eradication zones. Over 6,200 inspections were carried out with no new detection of banana freckle during the sentinel planting period.

The program entered the final phase in May 2017, allowing bananas to be purchased, grown, sold or moved within the NT without a permit. A permit is still required to move banana plants and fruit into and out of the NT. During the final phase, two rounds of inspections will be carried out on more than 300 properties. The first round of inspections was conducted in May and June of 2017 with no detection of banana freckle.

The second round of inspections commenced in January 2018 and is expected to be completed by March 2018. Upon successful completion, a submission will be made to the national biosecurity authorities to obtain National Proof of Freedom from banana freckle, which is expected by mid-2018.

For more information, please visit the Banana Freckle Eradication page on the DPIR website.

Canker Disease

Symptoms of the Canker Disease (CD) were detected within the NT in April 2018 for the first time since the early 1990’s. An emergency response to the disease is currently being investigated as its presence in Australia has the potential to affect produce volumes and export markets.

On 21st May 2018, the NT enforced special restrictions on the movement of host plants, to contain the spread of the CD. These controlled areas cover the greater Darwin areas as well as Katherine. The New South Wales Department of Primary Industry has also since implemented a control order, banning all citrus from the NT, including plants, fruit and leaves. This ban will remain in place for a minimum of 18 months.

CD is a bacterial virus that predominantly affects citrus and other plant species within the citrus family. This disease is commonly found in many tropical areas around the world including the NT. Previously recorded data validates that 14 years ago, more than half a million trees were destroyed in Queensland by the CD.

Although the disease does not pose any threat to human or animal health, plants with suspected CD have been removed from nurseries within the NT. Control for CD is better attained through prevention as once the disease has been formed it cannot be cured other than preventing the bacteria from spreading.

For more information, visit the Canker Disease information page on the DPIR website.


The following section uses the latest available data on the fisheries industry as of March 2018.

Crustacean production in the NT is dominated by prawns and mud crabs. Fish production largely comprises snapper, barramundi and mackerel. Aquaculture in the NT is primarily related to pearls and barramundi, with a small contribution from aquarium fish and spirulina production (the latter is used as a human diet supplement and a feed supplement in the aquaculture, aquarium and poultry industries).

In 2017, the commercial fishing industry had more than 230 commercial fishing licences, 192 registered fishing vessels and harvested about 6,000 tonnes of fish and marine life each year. There was commercial activity in 15 different wild harvest fisheries.

In 2015‑16, the estimated value of wild caught fish in the NT was $34.8 million (excluding prawns), with aquaculture products contributing a further $24.5 million. Environmental factors, such as low rainfall, have affected production of barramundi and mud crabs with pearl production affected by reduced global demand. The lower inshore fisheries production was significantly offset by growth in prawn and offshore fish production over the same period. Sustained growth in snapper production is expected to support a modest increase in fisheries production in the NT in 2016‑17.

The Northern Prawn Fisheries (NPF) reports the number of prawn catches in northern Australia, in the area between Cape York in Queensland and Cape Londonderry in Western Australia. The NPF produces four common commercial species of prawns including white banana prawns, tiger prawns, eastern king prawns and endeavour prawns. The weather and ocean conditions, particularly the level of rainfall during the wet season, are very influential on the productivity of the fishery especially for banana prawns.

In 2015‑16, NPF reported the total catch of prawns in the NT was about 3,796 tonnes. This comprised approximately 2,557 tonnes of tiger prawns, approximately 839 tonnes of banana prawns, approximately 398 tonnes of endeavour prawns and 3.2 tonnes of king prawns. There was a 112.4% increase in the total catch of tiger prawns in 2015‑16, as the 2015 tiger prawn season was the largest in almost 20 years with around 3,295 tonnes caught across fisheries in the NT (compared to around 1708 in 2014). The CSIRO suggests that the lack of rain may have spurred tiger prawn levels with reduced freshwater in the nursery areas and more favourable conditions in the spawning grounds. The total catch of banana prawns decreased by 49.6% in the NT due to a fairly dry wet season over the last few years (Chart 7).


There are currently three plantation forestry projects in the NT. Plantation forestry is becoming an increasingly important industry and is currently the second largest production land user in the NT after cattle grazing, with more than 49,500 hectares of the NT currently used to produce forestry products in managed plantations.

Up to 27,859 hectares of Acacia mangium is being grown for woodchip on the Tiwi islands. The forestry is managed by the Tiwi Plantations Corporation on Melville Island, and is an important source of income and employment for the Tiwi community. A total of 171,324 tonnes of Acacia woodchips were sold from the Tiwi Islands in 2016-17, with a total export value of around USD$11 million.

Quintis is a company that manages Indian Sandalwood plantations in the NT. In 2017, up to 5,848 hectares of Indian Sandalwood were being grown by Quintis in the Katherine, Douglas Daly and Mataranka regions of the NT. All Quintis sandalwood plantations in the NT were still too young to be harvested, resulting in no product sales for the 2016-17 financial year. Quintis was given major project status by the NT Government in 2016, but entered external administration in early 2018.

Approximately 14,000 hectares of African mahogany is being grown in the Douglas Daly region by African Mahogany Australia, which makes it the largest plantation estate of this species in the world. It is being grown for a high‑value, sawn timber market, which includes veneer boards, floor boards and feature grade timber. The estate is less than 10 years old, which means there is no commercial harvest yet and it is grown without irrigation.

Explanatory notes

The analysis is based on estimates from surveys undertaken by the NT Department of Primary Industry and Resources (DPIR), information from a survey undertaken by the NT Farmers Association in 2016, as well as preliminary data from the ABS on the value of agricultural commodities produced.

Caution is advised when interpreting annual changes in the value of production for commodities reported in this chapter. This is due to changes in the scope and coverage of producers in the survey, changes in the level of detail on commodities reported by producers, large percentage changes from a small base and one‑off weather events occurring in the NT and adjoining states.

For more data on agriculture, forestry and fishing, refer to DPIR's website.