Winning the battle for Shark Bay’s blue swimmer crabs

Shark Bay blue swimmer crabs are reporting their best season in more than a decade as local stocks rebound on the back of a long-term management plan.

After a decade long battle, Shark Bay’s blue swimmer crab population is back to its best with a sustainable management program rebuilding stocks after the 2010/2011 marine heatwave and multiple floodings decimated the fishery.

Today, the fishery is reporting sustainable catches of 650 tonnes per year, which is on par with historic records and represents around 45 percent of the State’s total catch of blue swimmer crabs.

The success of the industry’s management plan is based on world-leading science and a commitment to sustainable fisheries.

WAFIC chief executive, Alex Ogg said the Shark Bay recovery was a great example of stakeholders working together to support healthier oceans and improved outcomes for fishers and communities.

“For a fishery management plan to be successful, two things are essential. Firstly, you need good marine science to understand what is happening with the fishery dynamics along with an ongoing monitoring program to adapt and adjust throughout a recovery period.

“Secondly, you need an industry that is committed to sustainability and following these rules to ensure milestones are met and the fishery has its best opportunity for full recovery.”

“The Shark Bay crab fishery presents an excellent example of both these elements working in synergy.”

“In 2012, we saw a voluntary closure of the Shark Bay fishery followed by intensive monitoring of the stocks and environment. This process has taken the best part of a decade to support a robust return of crabs stocks to the region, but we are seeing the fruits and Shark Bay is once again Australia’s highest producing blue swimmer crab fishery,” Alex said.

Day-to-day oversight has been managed by fishing licence holders who work closely with marine scientists from the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD).

Shark Bay crab fisherman, Peter Jecks said the success in restoring the crab fishery has been a joint effort between industry and government.

“When crab numbers dropped in 2010/2011 local commercial fishers called on the Fisheries Minister to close the fishery despite the financial impact it would place on themselves.

“We could see through our catch reports what lay ahead and it was better to close the fishery immediately with the hope of recovery rather than continuing to fish and ruin it forever,” he said.

The plan worked and the past season was the best in 15 years.

“Our fishers are an integral part of the success of rebuilding the Shark Bay crab population. Every time we go out our catch volumes are reported and shared with marine scientists at DPIRD along with comments relating to size, weight, catch effort and other observations, so we are constantly tracking recovery milestones and adapting accordingly.

“A lot of people think commercial fishers are just harvesting what they want, but we have a vested interest in ensuring our oceans are healthy and producing sustainable volumes of crabs,” Peter said.

The close management of the fishery has also opened the door to the development of new innovations and trapping methods.

A new pot design, developed by local fishermen is proving to be around 300 percent more effective than the traditional model and opening the door to global sales.

“They say necessity is the mother of invention and we have invented what we believe is the world’s most effective crab trap. They are so effective we caught 72 tonnes more than last year in 60 days less time,” Peter said.

For Shark Bay’s crab fishers, long-term success is all about finding the balance between fishing economics and sustainability.

“If you lose track of either of these elements, your business will fail. We understand that better than most people and have enormous confidence in where we can take our fishery into the future,” Peter added.