Riding the crest of the wave

In 2000, Western Australia’s rock lobster fishers became the first in the world to achieve MSC certification. Almost two decades on, and despite challenges, the fishery continues to flourish

Unusually for a commercial fisherman, James Paratore spends much of his week inside, unable to see the sky.

Saturday and Sunday are a different story, working on the family boat, with nothing more than his father, the fresh air and an empty horizon for company.

At weekends, James fishes rock lobster commercially in Western Australia (WA). The fishery, which stretches along the coast for 1000km from Cape Leeuwin in the South to Shark Bay in the North, has some 250 vessels catching rock lobster using pots and traps.

And during the week? He’s working in the local emergency department, on his path to becoming a medical doctor.

A historical landmark

The fishery where James works was the first in the world to achieve MSC certification in 2000, and has recently become the only fishery to have been re-certified four times.

Not only did it lead the way in recognising the potential value of MSC certification, it was praised for its courage for exposing its management practices to a third-party assessment. To honour the landmark occasion, events were held in London, Sydney and Boston and were attended by special guests including Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan and British-American chef Lloyd Grossman. At the time, the MSC's Fisheries Director Jonathan Peacey said:

“This is an exciting day. With the certification of the Western Australia Rock Lobster Fishery, the Marine Stewardship Council’s certification program is no longer just an exciting concept—it is fully operational”.

Swift action in the face of a near-crisis

A decade on from the certification, and the fishery was facing a near crisis, the response to which gave James the opportunity to return to medical school.

Each year, scientists predict the size of Western Australia’s rock lobster catch four years into the future by monitoring the number of larval lobster, or puerulus, within the fishery. In 2008, they discovered an alarming decline in puerulus numbers. It was to be the start of a three year period during which researchers were catching as few as one puerulus per collecting device, compared to a historical average of 100. While it remains unclear what caused the drop, swift action by the fishery addressed the situation before it was too late.

For Basil Lenzo, a third-generation Fremantle fisherman, and Vice Chair of Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-operative, the choice was stark.

“We decided that we had to either halve the catch and go to an output [catch quota] fishery or close the fishery for a year to allow stocks to rebuild. After a lot of consideration, we opted for the former.”

"MSC certification acted as an important insurance policy for us during the difficult 09/10 period when sustainability and environmental questions were raised. It really helped us to demonstrate to the Western Australia Government that the industry knew what it was doing. The cuts [in quotas] may have been even more severe if we didn't have the evidence to support our MSC assessment at the time."

Basil Lenzo

Removing the race to fish

The quota-based system that was introduced in 2010 completely changed the dynamics of the fishery. Instead of racing against one another to meet a fishery-wide catch limit during the first seven months of the year, each fishing boat was allocated its own individual catch quota for the whole year. Almost overnight, the pace of fishing changed.

"We soon realised that the cheapest place to keep the lobster was in the bank (the ocean) and to fish for it when the market wanted it.” says Basil.

The individual quota system allows fishers to reap higher returns from the lobster they catch, and to bring live lobster to market year-round. And because fishers have less incentive to go out in dangerous conditions, it has improved safety too. But it also had some unexpected benefits, as James points out:

“Now people can fish when they choose. I've had the opportunity to go back to uni and study medicine while still helping dad on the weekends and in the holidays. That's a real advantage. Other fishers are now spending more time with their families and pursuing other interests in their lives.”

The management changes paid off, and during the last seven years catches have been higher than anything seen before. “Catch rates have tripled” explains Basil.“I keep pinching myself - it's amazing”.

But the changes were not without sacrifice. Halving the catch meant halving the number of boats in the fleet. Thankfully, though, many fishers were able to use their seafaring expertise in WA’s offshore oil industry, which was booming at the time. Others sold their quotas in favour of early retirement.

"Seventeen years ago, a bunch of people got together and saw MSC certification as a mechanism for future-proofing our fishery. Really, they were ahead of their time. We owe our success to those guys who knew that one day this was going to be crucial, not only for the market benefits, but for our social license to operate."

James Paratore


A journey of continual improvement

The fishery has worked hard to maintain its certification over the past 17 years, navigating a course of continual improvement. “The MSC's benchmark continues to go up, but within that, our rock lobster fishery has become a world leader in achieving the standard that other fisheries have then adopted.” said James.

As well as managing its stocks sustainably, the fishery has introduced new measures to eliminate unintended impacts on vulnerable marine species.

Back in 2000, little information was known about the impact the fishery was having on endangered Australian sea lion (Neophoca cinerea) populations that breed along the coast of Western Australia.

To maintain its certification, the fishery needed to find out how many juvenile sea lions were accidentally becoming entangled and trapped in lobster pots.

It later introduced Sea Lion Excluder Devices (SLEDs), modifications to the pots and traps that block access by juvenile sea lions while still allowing lobsters to be caught. In 2009, the use of SLEDs became mandatory across the fishery in water less than 20m deep in the proximity of a breeding colony. As a result of the SLEDs, the number of sea lion mortalities has dropped from 20 in 2006, to zero from 2012.

And sea lions aren't the only marine mammals to benefit from improved management measures.

"Using the MSC Framework, our fishery continues to monitor, respond and innovate. For example, in 2015 new mitigation measures were implemented to greatly reduce the risk of whale entanglements in the fishery during their migration season."

Kim Colero, Chair of the Western Australia Rock Lobster Council.

Taking control of their future

The market for rock lobster has also changed since 2000. Originally frozen and shipped to US markets, Western Australia’s rock lobster is now almost exclusively exported live to China where it achieves high profits as a much-prized delicacy.

The majority of lobster is sold through the Geraldton’s Fisherman’s Cooperative, established in 1950 by an handful of entrepreneurial fishers who wanted to remove the middleman from the lobster value chain and take control of their future. The cooperative, still 100% fisher owned, is now one of the largest rock lobster exporters in the world and handles 65% of WA’s rock lobster, having become certified against MSC’s traceability standard.

"Third-party accreditation is becoming increasingly important in our industry as it differentiates our product from others on the market. As the world is becoming more affluent it is questioning sustainability and the market is prepared to pay a premium for a product they can trust. This puts our fishery in a strong position".

Kim Colero, Chair of the Western Rock Lobster Council.

State-wide inspiration

In 2012, inspired by the fishery’s success, The Government of Western Australia provided $14.5m in funding to give all 47 WA fisheries the opportunity to undergo a pre-assessment against the MSC’s standard for sustainable fishing. As a result, the Exmouth Gulf Prawn, Shark Bay Prawn, Peel Harvey Blue Swimmer Crab, Peel Harvey Mullet, Deep Sea Crab and WA Abalone fisheries have since become MSC-certified. A further four fisheries are now undergoing full assessment and three more are due to join them soon. Following the success of MSC certification in the rock lobster fishery, Western Australia hopes to have every fishery certified within the next two decades.

Find out more about the people working in Western Australia's rock lobster fishery in this short film.

Images and film © Jason Thomas unless otherwise stated.

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