From rock bottom to rock lobster: How New Zealand fishermen helped bring back their famed “crayfish” | Oceana
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November 6, 2017

From rock bottom to rock lobster: How New Zealand fishermen helped bring back their famed “crayfish”

New Zealand's spiny lobsters are doing swimmingly, thanks to effective fishing laws.
Daniel Poloha / Shutterstock


Johnny Burkhart’s day starts at 2:15 in the morning, while his wife and three kids are still asleep. In the pre-dawn darkness, the 35-year-old lobsterman — or cray fisherman as he calls himself, using the Kiwi vernacular — slips out of his house and meets his two crew members on a sandy beach along the southeastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island.

To stay awake, the crew blasts Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd as they ease Burkhart’s 12-meter catamaran into the surf. “No Justin Bieber on my boat,” Burkhart says. They tug on their rubber gear and fire up a diesel heater to de-ice the windows, steering the boat into swell that can reach 5 meters. From 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. they work nonstop, pulling up lobster pots, baiting them and dropping them again. Though the boat has hydraulic lifts, each crew member manually handles some 5 metric tons of gear and fish each day. “It’s a great way to stay in shape,” Burkhart jokes.

At 8 a.m., the men take a 10-minute break, tossing back as much black coffee as they can swallow. Then it’s back to work until lunchtime. Sometimes the monotonous rhythm of the work is broken by dolphins

cruising alongside their boat or a whale spouting in the distance. For Burkhart, even the monotony is enjoyable, a reassurance that beneath the gray-blue waves are enough red rock lobster, commonly known here as crayfish, to support him and his family in perpetuity. There are still good years and bad years, but Burkhart doesn’t worry much about the future. “We’re a small ocean-bound country with limited resources and funding,” he says. “It’s taken us a while to develop the industry into something that’s productive and sustainable, but we’re definitely getting closer to that now. We’re working toward a really long-term sustainable industry.”

It wasn’t always this way. Burkhart is a third-generation cray fisherman, and his father and grandfather can recall times when the future was far less certain. Just a few decades ago, cray fishing was a race to haul in as many lobsters as possible, and the abundance of the catch was hardly guaranteed.

“One last hurrah”

Around the world, lobsters are one of the most sought-after kinds of seafood, and have been for much of recorded history. Lobsters appear in Egyptian art from 3,500 years ago and in Jewish and Christian religious texts. Greeks and Romans considered them a delicacy and perhaps an aphrodisiac, and hauled countless traps from the Mediterranean, keeping the lobsters alive in special holding ponds before delivering them to inland cities. In the Mediterranean and elsewhere, lobsters became smaller as humans caught and ate the biggest specimens.

But in the remote, nutrient-rich waters of New Zealand, the red rock lobster, Jasus edwarsii, flourished. New Zealand was among the last places in the world to be discovered by humans, and without people around, J. edwarsii grew to enormous sizes. Their tails were an estimated 20 centimeters long, compared to an average of 15 centimeters today.

That began to change around the year 1280, when the ancestors of today’s Maori stepped out of their double-hulled canoes and onto New Zealand’s shores. As hungry settlers plied the islands for food, they changed the local ecology. Giant flightless birds called moa were likely exterminated within a century, and populations of rock lobster — a prized food source — were also over-harvested in some areas. Some archaeologists suggest that times of heavy harvest were followed by periods when fishing wasn’t allowed, but even this practice didn’t allow lobster populations to return to previous levels.

European arrival in 1769 further disrupted the fishery. In the early 20th century Kiwis caught lobster for personal use and to support a small canning industry, but there wasn’t much of a market. With the end of World War II and a burgeoning middle class in America, though, lobster tails became a coveted luxury, and New Zealand fishermen rose to meet the demand. As the market for exported frozen tails grew, New Zealand’s rock lobster populations began to decline.

It was during this largely unregulated period, in 1971, that Daryl Sykes got his first job fishing in Cook Strait, a wind- and current-blasted finger that separates New Zealand’s North and South islands. “Anyone could walk off the street, buy a permit and go fishing for rock lobster,” recalls Sykes, who today serves as executive officer of the New Zealand Rock Lobster Industry Council. “It was just go fishing and get what you could and good luck to you if you got a lot.”

Yet as the federal government and fishermen alike noticed an ever-growing number of boats competing for an ever-shrinking number of lobsters, they began advocating for change. In 1977, New Zealand booted Korean, Japanese and other foreign vessels from its fishing grounds, creating an exclusive economic zone within 200 miles of its coast. A few years later, the country divided that zone into 10 management areas, and limited the number of lobster boats allowed in each area. Fishermen with rock lobster permits were banned from selling or transferring them, so that as they retired there’d be less pressure on the lobster stock.

But the changes did little to reverse the fishery’s downward spiral. By the mid-1980s, Sykes was captaining his own boat and serving on local and national fishing councils. He thought stronger regulations on pot designs and escape nets could help lobster rebound, but federal officials had other ideas: The government wanted to include rock lobster as one of the 100 species in its new Quota Management System, or QMS.

Sykes and other fishermen weren’t keen on the idea. Under QMS a “total allowable catch” would be set for each lobster population in each management area. What rubbed the lobster industry the wrong way was that the amount of the total catch allocated to any given fisherman would be based on how much lobster he or she had caught in previous seasons.

“People were put under pressure to justify whether or not they would be allowed to stay in the industry,” explains Sykes. And so New Zealand’s lobstermen began racing to haul in pots, each hoping to ensure that when quotas were doled out they’d get as big a piece of the pie as possible. The same mentality is what made the first season of the popular TV show “Deadliest Catch” so dramatic, says Tracy Yandle, a public policy and fisheries researcher at Georgia’s Emory College. The show’s crab fishermen were racing to ramp up their catch before a similar quota system was implemented in Alaska. New Zealand’s lobster fishery in the late ‘80s was essentially the Kiwi version of Deadliest Catch.

In 1988, the lobstermen finally agreed to support the quota system, but the process had ground to a halt. A coalition of Maori had filed suit against the government, claiming the new system didn’t recognize the fishing rights granted to them by treaty.

While the courts decided how much of the overall catch to grant to Maori interests, fishermen who planned to sell their quotas and retire headed out on the water for “one last hurrah,” Sykes remembers. “People said, ‘We’ve got one more season. Let’s just give it death and get all we can out of it.’”

Careful quotas

The last hurrah of New Zealand’s lobster fishermen meant that by 1990, the fishery had hit rock bottom. The “catch per unit effort” — a measure of a fishery’s abundance based on the lobsters that can legally be landed — was measured at just over 0.5 kilograms for each pot lifted from the seafloor, compared to more than 2 kilograms in the early 1960s. New Zealand’s fishery policymakers had their work cut out for them.

In New Zealand’s quota system, each fisherman owns the right to harvest a certain portion of the stock, which theoretically gives him or her incentive to ensure its long-term viability — the more fish in the ocean, the bigger each fisherman’s share. New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world to adopt a quota system as national policy, and today, most commercial fisheries in the country are managed with quotas.

But a quota isn’t a silver bullet that can bring a fishery back from the brink all by itself. Without reliable data, controls on fishing methods, and industry cooperation, even fisheries managed with quota systems can be unsustainable. According to Tracy Yandle, one important factor helps explain why quotas worked for New Zealand’s lobster fishery: the work of Daryl Sykes.

In the early 90s, Sykes, facing divorce, sold his lobster boat and quota and turned full-time to a career in what he cheekily refers to as “the bureaucracy.” In reality, Sykes became the link between fishermen on the water and government officials on land. His gregarious personality and ability to explain complex policy as though he were sitting on a porch telling a story helped ensure that both parties stayed in each other’s good graces. So when scientists said that fishermen in certain areas needed to reduce their catch by as much as half, Sykes helped convince them it was in their best interest to do so. Fishermen already cared about the stock, Sykes says — they just needed to understand the science behind the difficult actions they were being asked to take.

Sykes’ efforts were also aided by market forces. Until the late ‘80s, frozen lobster tails had been an export commodity like any other. But with the rise of an Asian market for fresh lobster and the advent of technology that allowed live crustaceans to be shipped overseas, lobster became one of New Zealand’s most valuable fisheries. The price per kilo skyrocketed. So although most fishermen’s overall catch decreased, their income ultimately stayed the same, or even rose.

With the industry and the government working in concert, the fishery rebounded with astonishing swiftness. By 1999, the catch per unit effort had risen from below 0.5 kilograms per pot to over 1 kilogram. By 2009 it was up to 1.3 kilograms per pot.

The lynchpin of the system’s success, however, is the government’s ability to set the total allowable catch just right. In New Zealand, the Rock Lobster Industry Council is responsible for gathering data on how many lobster lurk beneath the waves. The Industry Council then hires scientists to assess the data in each of New Zealand’s nine regions, and the biologists advise fishery managers on what the total allowable catch should be in each region. In essence, the fishermen co-manage their own fishery, and it’s worked well. “Once they owned quota, they figured it out quite quickly,” says Paul Breen, one of the biologists who advises the fishery. “They became very responsible managers.”


Crustacean migration

Still, because lobster populations increase and decrease naturally due to environmental fluctuations, the system depends on sound science. Getting the catch limit just right means understanding the intricacies of lobster biology and population dynamics. But aging a lobster is tough. Fish have growth rings in their ears similar to tree rings that allow biologists to track their ages. Lobsters don’t. And lobsters only grow — and mate — when they molt, but lobster mating season varies from one year to the next and one location to the next.

Mating, however, is where lobster biology gets interesting. Each fall, the normally-sociable males sequester themselves in underwater crevices. A female lobster begins visiting a male in his cave, attracting him with pheromones from her urine, which she squirts from a bladder located just beneath their eyestalks. Then the female enters his cave. They pet each other with their legs, which are equipped with taste buds, and the female molts. Without her armor-like exoskeleton, a female lobster is so vulnerable she can’t stand up. It’s in this delicate state that male and female lobsters gently copulate and produce up to 500,000 eggs, which the female will carry around throughout the Southern Hemisphere winter.

Occasionally, gangs of lobsters in New Zealand’s South Island undertake mass migrations, further complicating scientists’ efforts. Often the marches are small, but some years see thousands of lobsters migrating clockwise around the islands, against the current.

Fisheries biologist Bob Street studied this behavior in the 1990s, and he theorizes that it’s so newly-hatched larvae can end up in the same waters where they were conceived, like salmon returning to their natal streams. Yet because lobster larvae have the longest known larval development of any marine organism — they spend up to two years as tiny larvae drifting in the current — egg-bearing females sometimes migrate up to 500 kilometers away.

Lobster biology may be fascinating, but it’s not what Johnny Burkhart thinks about when he’s on his way home after a long day of fishing. Foremost on his mind is getting the lobsters to tanks in town as quickly as possible, to prevent any loss of life. The crustaceans wait on ice while Burkhart and his crew wash down the boats and download data from the onboard computers documenting their day’s catch. Then they drive the lobsters to saltwater tanks — the first leg of their journey to the markets of China.

By the time Burkhart gets home in the evening, he and the other cray fishermen have worked longer than almost any other type of fishermen on the coast, in some of the biggest and most dangerous seas. He has little time to spend with his kids before he falls asleep and does it all over again, heading out in the early morning hours to dark waves and salt spray, blasting Led Zeppelin. But the winter season is short and prices are good. He likes being out on the water, being in charge of his own destiny. And when he catches his quota, he’ll have plenty of time to help build his family’s new house, not far from the same coast where his father and grandfather once fished.