The Western Rock Lobster (Panulirus cygnus) fishery is the most valuable single-species fishery in Australia and usually represents about 20% of the total value of Australia’s fisheries. Virtually the entire catch of the Western Rock Lobster is caught up to 60km off the coast between Augusta and Shark Bay. The open season is between 15 November (Abrolhos Islands area closed until 15 March) and 30 June and fishing is done using baited pots. Commercial diving for lobsters is banned. The catch is mainly exported. Fishing has been under a management plan since March 1963 when licence and pot numbers were frozen, with a 10% reduction in pots between 1987 and 1992 a decline in boat numbers from 836 in 1963 to 596 in February 1999. The sustainable catch is estimated at between 10,000 and 11,000 tonnes per year, although the size of the actual catch has varied between 8,000 and 13,000 tonnes.


In the early 1990s it was estimated that egg production had fallen to 15-20% of what it had been before serious commercial fishing began in the 1950s, whereas 25% was considered sustainable. Measures to boost numbers of breeding females were introduced in 1993/4 and are still in force. Pot numbers were reduced temporarily by 18% and a slight increase in minimum size was set for the first 2.5 months of the season. It is also illegal to take mature females in breeding condition. There is also a maximum size limit applicable for females to boost egg production by protecting the remaining very large females. The configuration of pots and the size and number of escape gaps are also regulated to allow undersize lobsters to escape and pots may only be pulled during specified daylight hours.


Any new technology that may increase fishing success (e.g., underwater video cameras and refined pot design) must be assessed and approved before use. Recreational fishers, who take an estimated 3-8% of the commercial catch, must also be licensed and are subject to a strict bag limit.


As the price of lobster produces a high seasonal income, licences and gear have become valuable assets. Depending on the zone fished, a 100-pot licence, together with boat and gear, is valued at about $3m (1997/98 season) so new entrants face very high costs. Existing rock lobster fishermen are thus keen to conserve their livelihoods and have been supportive of conservation measures designed to maintain stocks. The 1997/98 catch of 10,500t represented an increase of 6% from the 1996/97 catch of 9,900t, despite the same fishing effort (10.7 million pot lifts). This is one of the few fisheries that has not exhibited any decline in landings, probably because this is a very well regulated industry with few players operating over a relatively small area. For instance, during the fishing season most of the fishers live on one small island (Rat Island in the Abrohlos) and in this close-knit community self-regulation plays a very important role.

Copyright © Environment Australia, 2002
Department of Environment and Heritage