April tools up for lobster season

CRA 8 – plenty to pot for. Photo credit CRAMAC8.
Daryl Sykes previews the season that might and reviews some of the season that was, as…

April marks the commencement of the rock lobster fishing year. The decisions on Total Allowable Catches (TACs) and the allowances for customary, recreational and illegal fishing—euphemistically referenced as “other sources of fishing related mortalities”—should have been confirmed prior to 01 April, and commercial fishermen would have assembled their annual catch entitlement (ACE) portfolios in anticipation of the total allowable commercial catches (TACCs) to be taken in the year ahead.

The export markets, and our continued access to them, are as important to the economic wellbeing of the lobster industry as the abundance of rock lobsters in each of the nine rock lobster (CRA) management areas. In the previous season, the principal live export market to China has been reasonably strong in both demand and price, but fishermen and exporters had to adjust to “pulses” in market preferences and prices.

There is talk of the China market again being directly accessible to the Australian rock lobster industry but the New Zealand industry has not enjoyed any real premium in their current absence and there have been sufficient quantities of Australian lobsters transhipping from dealers in Vietnam, Thailand and Hong Kong to keep their brand alive in the marketplace.

Pots – stacked and ready to set for the new season – Photo credit NZ RLIC

CRA areas healthy overall

Across the nine CRA areas, stock abundance is strong in most and otherwise variable in two. The southern fisheries—Otago and Southland (CRA 7 and CRA 8)—are strong and current TACCs will undoubtedly constrain landings for the 2023/24 fishing year. Similar circumstances prevail in Canterbury— Marlborough (CRA 5) and the Chatham Islands (CRA 6), where the TACCs are well matched to observed stock abundance in the most recent season. Fishermen in the Wellington—Hawkes Bay (CRA 4) fishery enjoyed good catch rates through 2022 into the first few months of 2023, in spite of a challenging weather pattern that threw up sustained periods of easterly swells and rough seas.

Further north into the Gisborne—East Coast region (CRA 3), weather has had a very significant impact on catches and fishing gear.

Two cyclones in the course of one fishing year have smashed inshore habitat, left piles of dead lobsters and shellfish scattered over beaches from

East Cape south to Anaura Bay, and caused significant gear loss from pot lines being entangled and dragged down by forestry slash.

In addition, CRA 3 fishermen were dogged by persistent easterly weather and large swells, which resulted in prolonged periods of vessels being grounded. It was a tough season— unusually tough—and there must now be some concern over the short to medium term impacts of the lobster mortalities attributed to the cyclones.

Castlepoint – too rough to launch. Photo Credit Power Squadron Marine.

Cyclone fallout historically measurable

The situation need not be a disaster—there have been other similar events in the past: Cyclone Bola being one of the most publicised, when tonnes of lobsters were lost to the rapid changes in salinity caused by flooding. In the same events, miles of coastline are covered in sedimentation when the rain brings hills to meet the sea. Fortunately, the ocean does not take long to flush the mud and silt from inshore reefs and the rocky platforms that provide excellent larval settlement substrate for rock lobsters (and for pāua).

And the lobster mortalities observed from Cyclone Bola, although significant in tonnage terms, proved to be of only minor consequence to CRA 3 stock abundance subsequently. If there is a worry about the recent damage it will be about the cumulative effect of such significant stock losses over a relatively short time. The alignments between larval settlement and subsequent recruitment to that fishery and the obvious storm damage to lobsters over the past year or so will determine just how large the ‘hole’ in future CRA 3 stock abundance will be. Customary fisheries issues have also resurfaced in CRA 3 and industry are currently working with marae committee representatives to implement an agreed mechanism to ensure sustainable use of lobster and shellfish stocks in localised areas.

‘Ocean grab’ a concern

Going north again and into the Bay of Plenty (CRA 2) lobster fishery, the situation is far more positive in terms of stock abundance but the dark cloud of additional area closures and marine protection measures hangs over the CRA 2 industry.

The Hauraki Gulf remains in the spotlight of government agencies and conservation groups. Commercial fishing has been demonised to the extent that very populist policy options are getting the greatest publicity and the ministry responsible for fisheries seems to have abandoned any management interventions that would be consistent with the property rights regime which underpins the New Zealand quota management system (QMS).

The recent decision to close the Gulf scallop fisheries to all but customary users is sure to be of concern to commercial operators and will probably leave many recreational fishermen and divers scratching their heads too. Abdicating a fisheries management responsibility to local Hapū is a big call by the ministry, but one they seem increasingly willing to make.

Ministry gun-shy

Moving into the Northland (CRA 1) rock lobster fishery where industry participants have made a strong case for no adjustments being made to TAC or TACC for the new fishing year. The recent Environment Court proceedings at which the alleged failure of the ministry to manage effects of fishing on the environment overshadowed the decades long history of managing the CRA 1 stock to sustainable limits. The ministry has shown itself to be somewhat gun shy as a result of that case. For example, in refusing to even discuss any consideration of an adjustment to the CRA 2 TAC/TACC in spite of stock monitoring data and the annual rapid update assessment confirming a very positive increase in CRA 2 stock abundance.

There is strong debate from the CRA 1 industry about the ministry wanting to further reduce the CRA 1 TACC in an effort to counter ecosystem effects allegedly connected to the relationship between lobster and kina abundance. The final decision on CRA 1 for the 2023/24 fishing year was not available at time of publication—in part because the former Minister of fisheries had made but not announced his decision before he was forced to stand down, and the new Minister, Hon David Parker, needed time to be briefed and to consider his response.

April first might seem an odd month and date on which to commence ‘a year’, but in spite of the obvious association with foolishness, it does work for the rock lobster fisheries. Nothing is certain in the fishing industry, with the politics of fishing increasingly becoming more uncertain than the weather; but during April rock lobster industry participants will be setting gear, sorting out their business relationships with quota share owners, processors, and crew and getting increasingly into gomode as they wind towards March 2024.

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