Case study: How the Western Australian rock lobster fishery eliminated sea lion mortalities — Marine Stewardship Council
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Case study: How the Western Australian rock lobster fishery eliminated sea lion mortalities

Image of Western Australia rock lobsterBycatch is the unintentional catching of marine animals that are not a fishery's target species, and is one of the main threats to marine biodiversity. In a perfect world there would be no bycatch, but reaching this ideal requires time, hard work and better scientific understanding of the problem.

2000: History and assessment

When fisheries are scientifically assessed for sustainability to the MSC Fisheries Standard, they are scored against 3 principles. The management of the fishery’s impact on bycatch species is considered under Principle 2: Minimising of environmental impact. Fisheries must achieve at least a ‘minimum acceptable’ score on all indicators. Those that achieve this but do not reach a ‘best practice’ score, can be certified with conditions. Such conditions need to be overcome and 'closed' within five years, in order for the fishery to successfully pass another assessment. 

The first fishery to ever be successfully assessed to our standard, was the Western Australia rock lobster (WARL) fishery, in 2000. At this time it was known that Australian sea lions breed in the areas near where the fishery operates. One threat to the sea lion population was their interaction with fishing gear, where juveniles could become entangled or trapped in lobster pots and traps. As such, a condition of MSC certification was for the fishery to collect information about the number of sea lion and other bycatch interactions associated with their gear.  

2006 - 2008: Reassessment and new management actions

Image of man holding two rock lobstersWhen the WARL fishery was re-assessed in 2006, the required data on sea lion mortalities had been collected and was estimated at 20 juveniles per year. A new condition was then applied for the implementation of management actions to reduce the risk of this fishery to the sea lions, with the aim of having zero mortalities. In addition, the condition required that any bycatch of sea lions be subject to a scientifically-robust monitoring system.

As a result of the conditions, the fishery introduced Sea Lion Excluder Devices (SLEDs), a modification to the pots and traps that blocks access by sea lions while still allowing lobsters to be caught. The use of these devices was made mandatory in water less than 20m deep within a specified zone near a breeding colony. Video surveillance was used to monitor compliance and the effectiveness of this measure.

2008 - 2009: Surveillance and further measures

In 2008, the Australian sea lion population was assessed and designated as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Like all MSC certified operations, the WARL fishery undergoes yearly surveillance audits. By the 3rd surveillance (2009), the use of video monitoring had identified a new area where juvenile sea lions were vulnerable to interaction with gear. As a consequence, another condition was added to make the use of SLEDs mandatory in this area as well.

2012: Recertification and zero sea lion bycatchImage of Western Australian rock lobster fisherman on boat with lobster trap

The monitoring showed that these measures were successful in preventing sea lions from entering lobster traps. As a result, the conditions of MSC certification were closed in 2011. By the time of its 2nd re-assessment in 2012, the monitoring data indicated that the fishery had reduced sea lion mortality to zero.

With its 2012 recertification, Western Australian rock lobster became the first fishery in the world to be MSC certified for a third time. In its journey towards this landmark, it not only continued to manage its target stock sustainably, but also eliminated its unintended impacts on an endangered species.

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