Rock Lobster Fisheries Review

The review process for the Tasmanian rock lobster fishery is nearing its final stages. Unfortunately it looks as if DPIPWE has learned nothing from the community consultation process, has ignored some obvious solutions to some obvious problems, and is overseeing the demise of this once iconic fishery.

The Tasmanian rock lobster has been both a lucrative and productive fishery for the commercial fishing industry, as well as a valuable resource for the recreational fishing community. During the late 1980s and early 1990s it became increasingly apparent that overfishing was causing severe problems, particularly along the east and south-east coastlines. A major review and reform of the fishery was undertaken to address a clearly recognised threat to the economic viability of the commercial fishery, culminating in the introduction of a commercial quota system in the late ’90s. Through much of the following decade things really seemed to be improving, with the estimated biomass of the stock doubling, despite some basic problems being ignored by successive Tasmanian governments.

Unfortunately, despite the huge change in management structure when quota was introduced, the fishery continued to have underlying problems that were never addressed and have become progressively worse. These problems include inshore fishing pressure and localised overfishing and the ecological disaster associated with Centrostephanus urchin barrens, and are particularly apparent on the east coast and in the south-east.

More recently, recruitment failure over the last three or four years has resulted in an ongoing reduction of rock lobster biomass so that now it is similar to that at around the time quota was introduced. Because new animals are not being ‘recruited’ into the stock (for reasons that are unclear, but possibly due to climate change or habitat destruction) at a rate greater than that at which they are being removed (by fishing and natural mortality), the fishery is basically back to where it was when quota was introduced to stop the commercial fishery from destroying itself.

For some years there has been no realistic expectation that the fishery could take its Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC). A TACC that can not be caught is not a meaningful fisheries management tool from the point of view of protecting stocks. If a TACC does not limit catch, it does not limit effort within the fishery or offer any meaningful protection to stocks.

Despite this fundamental flaw in fisheries management, many within the commercial fishery have been reluctant to reduce the TACC to a meaningful level and managers have been reluctant to impose useful limits. And, of course, even if the overall catch was reduced it would do nothing to address localised problems such as inshore fishing pressure, localised overfishing and urchin barrens.

As if things weren't bad enough with the rock lobster stock, the fishery has recently experienced a major problem just selling its product, due to its reliance on exports into the Chinese market. Late last year vocal complaints were made by the industry that this trade had been interrupted. In fact this situation was entirely predictable and it was only a matter of time before problems would develop in this market. As far as I can make out from conversations with people within the Tasmanian rock lobster industry, most of the exports into China are through places such as Hong Kong and are shipped to avoid official customs processes, official taxes and duties. It has always seemed strange to me that any legitimate industry could base its business model on what must be some form of organised crime. So far it appears that the disrupted trade into China has more to do with local price gouging than some sort of official recognition of the problem by Chinese authorities. However it does highlight a fundamental problem with this industry's marketing strategy, which seems to rely on avoiding reasonable government charges to be competitive.

Getting back to the biological problems associated with fisheries management and ecosystem impacts, it is clear that there is an urgent need for longstanding issues to be addressed. Meaningful solutions to inshore fishing pressure, localised overfishing and the urchin barren problem all require localised fisheries management changes. This means that both the commercial and recreational fisheries need to be managed at a scale that can protect inshore waters at depths of less than 30m and localised areas that may extend less than 1km along the coast. If no better option can be devised by DPIPWE, the abalone fishery provides a model that could be used by the rock lobster fishery.

The current review of the rock lobster fishery has provided a perfect opportunity to deal with all the issues associated with this important fishery. Unfortunately the DPIPWE recommendations that have so far come out of the review process do not go far enough to provide real solutions and don’t even provide the tools that would be needed to implement solutions in future.

Maximum size limits are one example of this. The barrens associated with Centrostephanus urchins, which pose a major threat to fisheries and the environment, are clearly related to the overfishing of rock lobster and the absence of rock lobster large enough to eat urchins. When practically all urchins with a carapace longer than about 138mm are removed from shallow Tasmanian rocky reef communities, the only significant Centrostephanus predator is removed and numbers of these urchins explode. As a result of the large seaweeds that normally cover shallow rocky reef are removed and the normal rocky reef community is destroyed. Huge barren wastelands are spreading along Tasmania’s coastline as a direct result of overfishing of rock lobster. One simple solution is to protect those that are large enough to feed on urchins. This suggestion has been met with dismay by the commercial rock lobster fishery as members believe it would be a cost to their industry.

Previously, this review proposed a maximum size limit of 140mm but this was subsequently changed to 160mm, whereas a limit around 138mm is needed for adequate protection of rock lobster that can effectively control Centrostephanus urchins. While a size limit alone is unlikely to result in the recovery of many urchin barrens in the near future, at least it is a start and would help stop the spread of destruction into new areas.

With variations in growth rates, size at maturity and fishing pressure in different areas across Tasmania, a single management approach is inappropriate. Area-based management that is sensitive to biological factors and fishing pressure is needed. Bag limits, possession limits and size limits should be determined according to the locality, and access to these areas by both commercial and recreational fishers should be managed accordingly.

Dealing with the Centrostephanus problem, and reducing inshore and localised overfishing pressure all require area management at a scale that allows differentiation between shallow (less than 30m) and deep water, as well as between sections of coastline of different lengths. As a minimum, management of the commercial fleet must be able to direct effort away from inshore waters shallower than 30m and local overfished areas. If no better option can be devised by DPIPWE, the abalone fishery provides a model that could be successfully used by the rock lobster fishery.

The failure to introduce any sort of meaningful system of area management means that the basic tool needed to correct the many problems associated with this fishery will not be available.

The Tasmanian rock lobster fishery’s problems highlight another issue associated with the management of our marine environment. The lack of a proper system of no-take Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) means that we do not have baseline reference areas that would enable us to identify and separate the respective impacts of climate change and fishing activities. This clearly makes it more difficult to identify appropriate management strategies. Given the rapidly declining biomass and ongoing poor recruitment, a decent system of MPAs would also provide some insurance to the fishery protecting root-stock.

The latest changes to fishery management made by the rock lobster review are not bad in themselves, but DPIPWE has failed to demonstrate how these changes will actually result in any significant improvements to the fishery or the fishery's environmental impacts.

The future of the Tasmanian rock lobster fishery will be guided by the outcome of this review. Major problems in the Tasmanian rock lobster fishery have been ignored for too long. Habitat changes that are caused by this fishery threaten the environment upon which this fishery is based. It is likely that difficult and unpopular decisions will have to be made to solve the problems created largely by the recreational and commercial fisheries. Climate change and recruitment failure make the situation even more difficult. The choice, however, is clear. Either the problems are dealt with now, or we will have continued decline in the recreational and commercial fisheries, increasing habitat degradation that undermines the local marine ecosystem and other fisheries (particularly the abalone fishery) as well as the rock lobster fishery itself, and the ongoing destruction of the rocky reef ecosystem along much of Tasmania's coast.

There is an urgent need to implement a system of area management to deal with localised overfishing, inshore fishing pressure and Centrostephanus urchin barrens. To be effective, that system needs to be able to direct fishing activities to within hundreds of metres and discriminate between shallow and deep water at the 30m depth contour.

Tagging of rock lobster taken by the recreational would add to certainty about the level of recreational catch (a minor point, now that the existing system has been validated) but, more importantly, could also be used to cap catch by individuals (limiting illegal sales) or cap effort in different areas of Tasmania. Tagging could be made self-funding at an insignificant cost to the fisher.

The Total Allowable Commercial Catch needs to be limiting for it to have any relevance: 800 tonnes should be the maximum until biomass starts to recover, and may need to be reduced even further if this does not happen quickly. Areas with urchin barrens on the east coast and south east should be closed until rock lobster stocks recover.

A comprehensive, adequate and representative system of marine protected areas should be put in place to create baseline reference areas and allow the determination of fishing impacts and differentiate between fishing impacts and climate change so that the fishery can be managed more effectively.

Approval under the EPBC Act is required for the export of Tasmanian rock lobster into this fishery's main market. EPBC approval is supposed to ensure fisheries are environmentally sustainable. Right now, the commercial Tasmanian rock lobster is not sustainable, due to declining biomass and expanding habitat destruction. It is hard to see how this fishery will be able to gain renewed approval under the EPBC Act and export its product overseas unless a more than token attempt is made to deal with the serious issues that face it.

The Tasmanian rock lobster fishery is in crisis, with falling biomass and declining CPUE (catch per unit of effort). It is the cause of major habitat destruction that is already widespread and continues to threaten rocky reef ecosystems and the abalone fishery. None of the major problems associated with this fishery are new or should come as a surprise, but it is clearly time for them to be fixed. The proposals made by DIPIPWE so far will not make any significant difference.

Jon Bryan
Tasmanian Conservation Trust