Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, is embarking on a new research project that will provide vital information into the impacts of climate change on key fisheries in the Torres Strait.
The project, scheduled to kick off this month, will provide fishers and managers with information about the current and future risks of climate change to help them manage fisheries such as the tropical rock lobster (Kaiar), sea cucumber (Aber) and finfish.
The new project expands on work researchers are conducting in the Torres Strait, with CSIRO holding a celebration on Thursday Island (Waiben) on Thursday 16 November to mark the milestone 35th annual tropical rock lobster population survey.
CSIRO senior principal research scientist and project lead of the Torres Strait tropical rock lobster survey, Dr Eva Plaganyi, said the tropical rock lobster fishery is economically the most important fishery for Torres Strait Islanders and supports the livelihoods of hundreds of fishers.
“Although the lobster surveys show the fishery is naturally highly variable, climate change is causing this variability to become even more extreme in some years and there are increasing impacts on lobsters and habitat,” Dr Plaganyi said.
“The variability means the numbers of lobsters available to be caught sustainably by the fishery can double or halve from one year to the next. The survey data are rapidly processed and analysed to help inform the setting of a Total Allowable Catch each year.
“The survey is a way to accurately track ecosystem health, which is important given emerging impacts and changes due to climate change, and this improved understanding helps inform the science underpinning all lobster fisheries.”
The results of this year’s survey will be available in December and will provide important clues into how a large-scale change in a key regional climate driver – namely the switch from La Niña to El Niño – may be affecting the fishery.
Research suggests that in the past, strong El Niño likely led to poor subsequent recruitment and catches of lobsters in Torres Strait.
The total catch of tropical rock lobster has fluctuated between 132 tonnes and 917 tonnes per year for the Australian sectors in the Torres Strait over the past four decades. According to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) Fishery Status Reports 2023, the total catch for the 2021–22 fishing season was 290.3 tonnes.
Real gross value of production of tropical rock lobster in the Torres Strait has varied in recent years due to COVID, and reached $16.03 million for the 2021-22 fishing season, with China and United States making up the primary markets.
CSIRO senior research scientist and project lead of the new project ‘Modelling climate change impacts on key fisheries in the Torres Strait to co-develop adaptation and mitigation strategies’, Dr Laura Blamey, said fisheries in the Torres Strait play a vital role in supporting the lifestyles, livelihoods, and economic activities of the region, but are increasingly threatened by the effects of climate change.
“Rising sea levels, warmer atmospheric and ocean temperatures, more acidic waters, changes in ocean circulation, and more intense rainfall patterns are expected to have both direct and indirect impacts on the abundance, distribution, growth, reproductive capacity, and phenology of key species in these fisheries,” Dr Blamey said.
“Understanding the nature and extent of climate change impacts on fisheries, and their socio-economic and livelihood consequences will help stakeholders better manage risks and adapt.
“This project is only possible given the long time series of data available for some of the key species, such as tropical rock lobster, and the long history of research and collaboration between CSIRO and stakeholders in the Torres Strait.”
As part of the project, researchers will collect oceanographic data to inform a 3-dimensional ocean model that will be able to generate additional oceanographic data, based on different climate change scenarios.
The climate scenarios will feed into an integrated ecological model known as MICE (Model of Intermediate Complexity for Ecosystem assessment) to estimate climate change impacts on selected fisheries and species.
The model results will be presented to stakeholders, allowing for discussion and co-development of adaptation strategies via workshops.
The Torres Strait tropical rock lobster population surveys are funded by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority and CSIRO, while the new project ‘Modelling climate change impacts on key fisheries in the Torres Strait to co-develop adaptation and mitigation strategies’’ is funded by the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) and CSIRO.