Lobster numbers critically low

West Coast rock lobster is a popular treat among tourists and locals. Picture: Pinterest

West Coast rock lobster numbers have plummeted in recent years, according to conservationists who say a
mind shift is needed by restaurants, fishing companies and fishermen to save the species from extinction.

The West Coast rock lobster, or kreef as it is more commonly known, was placed on the
World Wildlife Fund for Nature’s (WWF) Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) red list in December 2016.

WWF Sassi’s Pavitray Pillay said compared to when the species was first fished commercially in the 1880s, less than 2% of it remained.

It is due to its popularity
among tourists and locals as well as inflated quotas and illegal fishing.

According to a report by
Dr Nicola Okes from the Department of Biological Sciences at UCT and George Branch from the
Marine Research Institute, the West Coast rock lobster (Jasus lalandii) is considered one of the most valuable fisheries resources in South Africa. With an estimated market value of R260 million, the fishery provides many with employment.

As the commercial fishery has grown since its inception in the 1880s, its management had to adapt to many challenges. Lobster landings peaked in the 1950s at 18 000 tons but declined sharply to 10 000 tons by the 1960s and
have continued to decline in recent years with landings in 2016 being about 2 000 tons.

According to the report, an operational management procedure (OMP) was put in place in 1997 in an attempt to rebuild stocks to a sustainable level and allow management to adapt to uncertainties in trends and growth rates.

The OMP provides the framework for the setting of the total allowable catch (TAC) through the Rock Lobster Scientific Working Group (SWG) of the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF).

In recent years, however, concerns were raised when TAC recommendations from the SWG were not implemented and instead a TAC was set at more than 70% of what would maintain the resource at its current level.

Ms Pillay said in 2018, WWF initiated a court action against the former Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
(DAFF) seeking an order to declare the TAC allocated by the department, which was far above the SWG recommendations, to be invalid.

WWF stated that the department’s TAC for 2017/2018 for the West Coast rock lobster undermined its long term survival and the future of fisheries that depend on it.

In September 2018, the Western Cape High Court ruled that the West Coast rock lobster TAC
was inconsistent with the constitution as per the Marine Living Resources Act and that it was far above the SWG recommendation and therefore invalid.

The following year DAFF announced that the 2018/2019 TAC for the West Coast rock lobster was 1 084 tons, a 43.6% drop from the previous year.

This recommendation was made as part of a two-phased package in which it was recognised that a further reduction in the TAC
would be necessary in the 2019/2020 TAC to ensure sustainability and prevent numbers from decreasing further.

However, in September last year DEFF released its TAC at 1 084 tons, the same as the previous year.

However, DEFFmediaspokesman Albi Modise said no further reduction was needed for 2019/20 to reach a recovery target above the 2006 biomass level by 2025. The 2019/2020 TAC, he said, is predicted to result in a 4% recovery above the 2006 benchmark biomass level.

He said a stock assessment of West Coast rock lobster is conducted annually to assess the status of the resource and to determine the levels at which it can be sustainably exploited.

“Since the 2016/2017 season, a season-based effort limitation strategy has been implemented that has reduced the commercial fishing season from a seven to eight month period to a four month period. This strategy has been considered an immediate and effective tool to reduce the negative impacts of poaching levels,” he said.

But WWF believes that at this rate it will take four to five years before the species reaches commercial extinction.

According to the WWF-Sassi list, the East Coast rock lobster, which is hand-collected and also available on our coasts, would make the ideal replacement as it is on the Sassi green list.

Ms Pillay encouraged restaurants to focus on green-listed species and said she was concerned about the fact that some restaurants misinformed consumers by saying that West Coast rock lobster could be farmed.

“Farming a West Coast rock lobster is impossible,” she said, noting that open ocean dispersal
was needed for some stages of its life cycle and that was an impossible process to recreate in an artificial environment.

Operations manager at Bertha’s and the Black Marlin restaurant, Colleen Ferrier, said they had decided in 2017 after the “Skip the Kreef” campaign not to sell lobster in their restaurants anymore.

She said it was a favourite among tourists and they had lost clients and income by doing so.

“Sustainability makes good business sense and that is why we support Sassi,” she said.

Ms Pillay said while many organisations and individuals
did their part in ensuring the sustainability of the species, it remained on the Sassi red list and WWF warned consumers not to buy it.