For thousands of years the communities who call the islands speckling the Torres Strait islands home have had a deep connection with the sea. As Éva Plagányi of the CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere explains it, fishing for resources such as lobsters is more than a way to make ends meet; there is a delicate balance of economics, ecology, and culture to take into consideration.
“I enjoy that lobsters are an integral part of their life and culture beyond just being a source of income, and that maintaining their traditional way of life is as important to them as earning a living,” says Plagányi, whose work with the Torres Strait communities seeks to not only sustain lobster numbers while providing the islanders with a trade, but to sustain their cultural values as well.
Since the tropical or ‘ornate’ rock lobster (Panulirus ornatus) stubbornly refuses to be bred in captivity, the only way we can enjoy this delicacy is by hunting it in its native environment. Yet the crustacean, called ‘kaiar’ on the Torres Strait islands of far north Queensland, isn’t always in plentiful supply, meaning fisheries need to pay close attention to their population if there is to be enough to catch in future years.
Controlling lobster numbers has historically been little different to the management of other natural resources, with limits placed on fishing quotas, seasons and zones. For the Torres Strait kaiar fishery this means fishing is restricted between the start of December and close of the following September within boundaries controlled by the Protected Zone Joint Authority (PZJA).
With an annual worth of $35 million, it’s the most lucrative fishery in the region, and complicated sharing arrangements are necessary between traditional owners in the Torres Strait and Papua New Guinea and non-traditional fishers from Australia.
Communities indigenous to the Torres Strait have been fishing for kaiar for generations, long before there were government restrictions, making them culturally significant as a food source. While the PZJA has focussed on negotiating how fishing rights should be divided between non-traditional and Indigenous fishers in Papua New Guinea and Torres Strait in recent years, satisfying the needs of the fishers comes down to more than counting coins and lobsters.
Striking a balance – economics, ecology and sociology
Plagányi understands better than most the importance of adding sociological data to ecological and economics models when it comes to managing small traditional fisheries.
Plagányi started working the Torres Strait eight years ago after moving from South Africa.
“I was thrilled to discover a corner of Australia where a profitable, well-managed, modern fishery is embedded in a rich and traditional culture with a strong sense of ownership and responsibility for the marine resources on their doorstep.”
Yet striking a balance between the competitive market-forces behind modern fisheries with traditional culture isn’t always straight forward. While some fishers are turning to new technologies and methods, many traditional fishers still value the skills and processes used by previous generations, hunting in small boats, free-diving for their catch and using lamps to attract fish at night.
Knowing these practices and values is important if kaiar stocks are to be sustained, means researchers need to take stock not only of lobster numbers, but of the cultural needs of those who fish for them.
Since 1989, the CSIRO has conducted annual fishery-independent surveys on lobster populations every year to help predict stocks in the pending fishing season for the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA). As data and knowledge about the lobsters increases over the years, so too does the predictive power of the models.
With climate change comes the potential for a significant impact on fishing. Plagányi points out, “Recently the temperatures in parts of Torres Strait were much higher than historical values, and this can lead to high mortality of captured lobsters, given that most lobsters are captured live for export to China.”
Science is a two-way street
CSIRO researchers have linked the figures from the diver surveys and commercial catches with economic data as well as information from interviews with the fishers themselves. The resulting model forecasts the potential profits, changes to future stocks, social indicators under various scenarios, revealing some potential ecological and economic consequences of specific management strategies, as well as social impacts.
Ecological data on target catches is important for sustainable fishing, but models eventually come down to the commitment of fishers to be put into action. Science means little if it can’t be shared with those who can use it.
“We believe two-way communication with stakeholders is essential, and spend a good deal of time explaining our science and also seeking input from traditional owners to better inform our scientific understanding,” Plagányi explains.
It’s this kind of collaboration that helps maximise the returns for the traditional owners. Imposing a static limit on kaiar numbers would only be sustainable if it reflected the population size on a bad year, just to be on the safe side. By sharing data and understanding the nuances of traditional practices, it’s possible to negotiate higher catch limits when the pending season allows for it, and then restrict catches when the population shrinks.
“The traditional owners have a strong conservationist and equity ethic which translates into a deep concern to maintain healthy lobster populations into the future and fair access for everyone,” says Plagányi.
Small scale, big numbers
While there is significant research into conserving marine stocks and the capitalist economics behind global seafood markets, less is known about the diverse social factors driving those who make a living on the sea.
The lifestyles of some 78 million people worldwide depend on small scale fisheries, many of whom share similar values and challenges in balancing profit with traditional values. Research that holistically explores alternatives to systems imposing one-size-fits-all restrictions can provide significant benefit to this sizeable group, not just by allowing for larger catches but by recognising that fishing is as much about a community’s sense of equity and self-determination as it is about maximising return.
“There has been a lot of interest internationally in the Torres Strait lobster fishery, and it has been held up as a state-of-the-art example as to how to bring socio-cultural considerations into more traditional fisheries management which has a biological and sometimes economic focus,” says Plagányi.
Experts in countries like Canada are now looking to Australia as an example of how communication can be improved between Indigenous communities and the authorities that manage their local resources. Knowing how to manage the trade-offs between economic, ecological and social forces could potentially help ageless traditions continue well into the future.