Two small research areas that were closed to rock lobster fishing, so that researchers could investigate the Centrostephanus urchin barrens that threaten much of Tasmania's rocky reef systems, are at risk of being opened to fishing even while they remain vital to the fight against the destruction of reef habitat and important fisheries. Centrostephanus barrens currently represent the greatest threat to Tasmanian reefs and recreational abalone and rock lobster fishing.
In August 2012 the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Tony Burke, decided to list the ecological community ‘Giant kelp marine forests of south east Australia’, as endangered under the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The listing recognises the severe decline, up to 98% in the case of one population, in the area of sea floor covered by giant kelp forests off Tasmania, which has been a cause of concern among scientists and conservationists for more than a decade.1 The original nomination in 2009, by Humane Society International, specified giant kelp forests in Tasmanian waters, but the listing also covers the occurrence of the community off Victoria and South Australia.
The Tasmanian Government’s failure to act on longstanding problems associated with the rock lobster fishery not only threatens its sustainability and export accreditation, but also jeopardises the abalone fishery and the marine environment. Tasmania’s iconic rock lobster fishery has been plagued by serious problems for many years and the Tasmanian Government is doing nothing about it. Localised overfishing, inshore fishing pressure and expanding Centrostephanus urchin barrens are longstanding problems. Since 2008, recruitment failure, that is the failure of juvenile rock lobsters to grow and survive to become part of the legal sized fishery stock, has amplified the other problems.
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.
Over the last three editions of the Tasmanian Conservationist our marine campaigner Jon Bryan has outlined the crisis that exists in the rock lobster fishery and the resulting environmental crisis this has caused, in particular on the east coast of Tasmania. Reduction in numbers of large rock lobster due mainly to over fishing has removed one of the key natural controls on the Centrostephanus sea urchin. With nothing left to control them, these sea urchins have proliferated along most of the east coast removing vital algae species and reducing once bio-diverse rocky reef habitats to barren wastelands.
The rock lobster fishery is currently in crisis. Despite having an excellent management framework and relatively well-resourced research and management support, major problems have been ignored for too long. Excessive commercial inshore fishing pressure, localised overfishing, habitat change associated with knife-edge fishing (what is this) and consequent expanding urchin populations are all issues that have been recognised for years, but have not yet been addressed by any meaningful changes to management. Since 2006, poor recruitment has added to these already serious problems. Habitat change due to the rock lobster fishing and overfishing are now major concerns, particularly in the east and southeast regions, that can no longer be ignored.
The rock lobster fishery is one of the most lucrative and well-resourced and managed fisheries in Tasmania, and yet it is on the verge of calamity, and no one seems particularly keen to do anything about it.This is not the first time that the rock lobster fishery has been in crisis. In the 1990s a new quota system was introduced in an attempt to make the commercial fishery more sustainable and more economically viable. Until a few years ago this appeared to be working and the biomass was slowly increasing, despite the catch being set at an optimistically high level.