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, the 82-year-old has been forced to sell her home, antique furniture and car after a herpes-like virus decimated a third of Australia’s wild abalone industry.
Mrs Halliday was the first witness called in the $82 million class action by abalone licence holders against the Victoria government.
She bought an abalone licence in 1999 for $4.25 million as a seemingly sound investment, which would deliver strong capital growth.
It was a ticket to ending her long days working in hotels, which she had bought after building up her assets by renovating houses.
‘‘I was working probably 12, 15 hours a day,’’ Ms Halliday told a Supreme Court trial this week.
The need to exit the hotel business became more pressing after her son, Gregory, was killed.
‘‘I just sort of lost it a bit and decided I wasn’t going to go out working all day and the abalone licence came up.’’
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.’’
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 virus escaped from the Southern Ocean Mariculture farm off Port Fairy. The class action alleges the state government failed to control the spread of the disease, which 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. But she still struggled to make the repayments, forcing her to start withdrawing her term deposits.
‘‘Gradually I used all of those until I had none left and then I had nothing. ’’
The Victorian government gave her special and exploratory permits to increase her licence’s three-tonne quota , but ‘‘they have now run out’’.
Defence counsel Michael Wheelahan SC asked Mrs Halliday if it was ‘‘fair to say that those permit fish have been of no real value to you’’.
‘‘It probably gave us up to half-a-tonne more fish in the year, which was not to be sneezed at,’’ she said.
Mrs Halliday previously said she had no other income sources.
The trial continues.