Chapter 3: Coral Sea Fishery
T Emery and K Mazur.
TABLE 3.1 Status of the Coral Sea Fishery
|Biological status||Fishing mortality ||Biomass||Fishing|
|Black teatfish (Holothuria whitmaei)||Not subject to overfishing||Not overfished||Not subject to overfishing||Not overfished||0.08 t caught in 2016–17; historical catch is less than plausible sustainable yield.|
|Prickly redfish (Thelenota ananas)||Not subject to overfishing||Not overfished||Not subject to overfishing||Not overfished||0.32 t caught in 2016–17; historical catch is less than plausible sustainable yield.|
|Surf redfish (Actinopyga mauritiana)||Not subject to overfishing||Not overfished||Not subject to overfishing||Not overfished||No catch in 2016–17; historical catch is less than plausible sustainable yield.|
|White teatfish (Holothuria fuscogilva)||Not subject to overfishing||Uncertain||Uncertain||Uncertain||2.4 t caught in 2016–17; no current assessment to determine fishing mortality or biomass status.|
|Other sea cucumber species (~11 species)||Not subject to overfishing||Uncertain||Not subject to overfishing||Uncertain||No catch in 2016–17; no current assessment to determine biomass status.|
|Aquarium Sector (>500 species)||Not subject to overfishing||Not overfished||Not subject to overfishing||Not overfished||Maximum fishing effort is constrained by management and is unlikely to affect stock status.|
|Tropical rock lobster (Panulirus ornatus)||Not subject to overfishing||Not overfished||Not subject to overfishing||Not overfished||No catch in 2016–17; historical catch is less than plausible sustainable yield.|
|Line and Trap Sector (numerous finfish and shark species)||Not subject to overfishing||Uncertain||Uncertain||Uncertain||Species-specific MSY estimates are uncertain due to changes in species composition; no current assessment to determine biomass status.|
|Trawl and Trap Sector (numerous finfish, shark and crustacean species)||Not subject to overfishing||Uncertain||Not subject to overfishing||Uncertain||Fishing mortality levels are unlikely to constitute overfishing; no current assessment to determine biomass status.|
Estimates of NER are not available. Catch in the Aquarium Sector decreased in 2016–17; however, because of a lack of information about the mix of fish caught, it is unclear how this may have affected NER. The catch and effort in the Sea Cucumber Sector in 2016–17 increased, whereas catch and effort in the longline and dropline sectors declined in 2015–16 relative to the previous season. A high degree of latent effort in the non-aquarium part of the fishery suggests low NER.
MSY Maximum sustainable yield. NER Net economic returns.
3.1 Description of the fishery
The Coral Sea Fishery (CSF) extends from Cape York to Sandy Cape, Queensland (Figure 3.1). It is bounded on the east by the Australian Fishing Zone and on the west by a line 10–100 nautical miles east of the eastern boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
Fishing methods and key species
The CSF is a multispecies, multigear fishery targeting a variety of fish, sea cucumbers and crustaceans. Fishing methods include hand collection, demersal line, dropline, trotline, traps and trawl. Several separate fisheries existed in the Coral Sea before their integration into the CSF, including the East Coast Deepwater Finfish Fishery, the East Coast Deepwater Crustacean Trawl Fishery and the North Eastern Demersal Line Fishery.
Management of the CSF involves both input (fishing effort) and output (catch) controls, including limited entry, total allowable catches (TACs), spatial closures, move-on provisions, size limits and catch-and-effort triggers, which are used to initiate further analysis and assessment. The harvest strategies for the sectors recognise the low effort and diverse nature of the fishery, and this is taken into account in assessing their performance. ABARES analysed harvest levels in the Sea Cucumber, Lobster and Trochus, Aquarium, and Line and Trap sectors of the CSF (Chambers 2015; Larcombe & Roach 2015; Leatherbarrow & Woodhams 2015; Woodhams, Chambers & Penrose 2015). This work, part of the Reducing Uncertainty in Stock Status project, investigated current and historical catches, and indicators of population size to evaluate status. Although it did not explicitly consider the design of harvest strategies, the work may inform revision of harvest strategies in the future. The Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) is undertaking a review of the Aquarium, and Line, Trap and Trawl harvest strategies, which is due for completion early in the 2018–19 fishing season. It is expected that the updated harvest strategies will identify the key commercial species for each sector and revise associated catch triggers to effectively monitor catches. Given the lack of fishing in the Lobster and Trochus, and Sea Cucumber sectors, and the expectation that this will continue, these harvest strategies are not currently being reviewed.
In 2016–17, nine vessels were active in the fishery: six in the Line and Trap Sector, two in the Aquarium Sector and one in the Sea Cucumber Sector.
Approximately 52.8 t of fish products (excluding the Aquarium Sector, where catch is recorded as the number of individuals) was taken in the CSF during 2016–17, representing a slight increase from the 51.6 t taken in the 2015–16 season (Table 3.2). Most of this catch (49.9 t) was finfish products.
Table 3.2 Main features and statistics for the CSF
a||2015–16 fishing season||2016–17 fishing season|
|Stock||TAC (t) or catch trigger||Catch (t)||Real value (2014–15)||TAC (t)||Catch (t)||Real value (2015–16)|
|Aquarium Sector||40,000 individuals
b||32,462 individuals||Confidential||40,000 individuals b||26,811 individuals||Confidential|
|Greenfish and lollyfish||10||0||0||10||0||0|
|Other sea cucumbers||10||0||0||10||0||0|
|Total sea cucumbers||150||0||0||150||2.8||Confidential|
|Tropical rock lobster||30
|Line, trap and trawl operations (numerous finfish and shark species)||–||51.6||Confidential||–||49.9||Confidential|
Sea Cucumber: 0 dive-hours
Lobster: 0 dive-hours
Aquarium: 1,993 dive-hours
Line and Trap, and Trawl and Trap: 169,070 hooks, 0 lines set, 0 trap lifts, 0 trawl-hours
Sea Cucumber: 96 dive-hours
Lobster: 0 dive-hours
Aquarium: 1,581 dive-hours
Line and Trap, and Trawl and Trap: 147,204 hooks, 160 lines set, 0 trap lifts, 0 trawl-hours
16 fishing permits across the Line and Trap (8), Trawl and Trap (2), Sea Cucumber (2), Aquarium (2), and Lobster and Trochus (2) sectors
16 fishing permits across the Line and Trap (8), Trawl and Trap (2), Sea Cucumber (2), Aquarium (2), and Lobster and Trochus (2) sectors
Sea Cucumber: 0
Line and Trap, and Trawl and Trap: 7.7%
Sea Cucumber: 100%
Line and Trap, and Trawl and Trap: 5.6%
Hand collection (includes barbless hooks and line, scoop, cast and seine nets), with or without the use of breathing apparatus; line (demersal longline, dropline and trotline); traps and trawl (finfish and crustacean)
|Primary landing ports|
Bowen, Innisfail, Mooloolaba (Queensland)
Input controls: limited entry, spatial closures
Output controls: catch triggers, size restrictions, TACs for sea cucumbers
Other: move-on provisions
Domestic: fish products—fresh, frozen; aquarium species—live
International: South-East Asia—dried sea cucumber (bêche-de-mer); worldwide—live aquarium species
Management arrangements booklet 2017–18—Coral Sea Fishery (AFMA 2017)
a Unless otherwise indicated, fishery statistics are provided by fishing season, which matches the financial year (1 July – 30 June). Real-value statistics are provided by financial year.
b Trigger limits.
c Total catch weight excludes Aquarium Sector catch.
TAC Total allowable catch. – Not applicable.
3.2 Biological status
Sea Cucumber Sector
Line drawing: FAO
Primary target species in the Sea Cucumber Sector include black teatfish (Holothuria whitmaei), white teatfish (H. fuscogilva), surf redfish (Actinopyga mauritiana) and prickly redfish (Thelenota ananas). Limited information is available on the stock structure of these four species. For management purposes, each species is assumed to be a single biological stock. Another dozen sea cucumber species have either been taken or could potentially be taken in the fishery, should a market arise (Woodhams, Chambers & Penrose 2015). The stock structure of these other sea cucumber species is unknown. Given the lack of information on these species, it is not practical to consider each separately, and they are managed and assessed as a group. Therefore, their status is also reported as a group.
Catch of sea cucumbers peaked at 49 t in 2000–01. Following a marked decline in catch and catch rate of black teatfish on some reefs, annual catch limits were reduced. Since 2003–04, the annual sea cucumber catch has fluctuated between 0 t and 9.2 t. Annual catches since 2007–08 have generally been less than 3 t, with 2.8 t recorded in 2016–17.
Thirteen species or species groups have been reported in historical catches from the Sea Cucumber Sector. No formal quantitative stock assessments have been undertaken for sea cucumber species in this sector. Research by ABARES was used to determine stock status for black teatfish, white teatfish, surf redfish and prickly redfish in 2012 (Woodhams, Chambers & Penrose 2015).
Estimates of biomass for the four sea cucumber species used a habitat-based approach. Estimates of habitat area were from a geomorphological classification undertaken as part of the Millennium Coral Reef Mapping Project (Andréfouët et al. 2005), and population densities were derived from survey data collected from the Lihou Reef and Coringa–Herald national nature reserves (Ceccarelli et al. 2008; Oxley et al. 2003, 2004). Average animal weights from commercial catch data were used to estimate biomass, and surplus production models were used to estimate maximum sustainable yield (MSY).
Stock status determination
Stock status is evaluated using outputs of the surplus production models and catch, which provide an estimate of biomass in 2010 as a proportion of biomass at the start of the assessment period (1997). Using an estimate of median biomass for black teatfish and prickly redfish, total biomass in 2010 exceeded 99 per cent of biomass at the start of the assessment period. Since this estimate, catches have remained low, not exceeding the estimate of MSY. As a result, black teatfish and prickly redfish are classified as not overfished and not subject to overfishing.
Catches of surf redfish have remained low and well below historical peaks that exceeded 4 t per season. Zero catch was recorded in 2016–17. Given that catches of surf redfish have been less than the median estimate of MSY (879 kg) for 15 of the 19 seasons since 1997–98 (including the 2016–17 season), surf redfish is classified as not overfished and not subject to overfishing. Catch of white teatfish increased from zero to 2.4 t in 2016–17 but remains well below the historical peak of 19.7 t in 1999–2000. Permit holders operate in the Queensland state-managed sea cucumber fishery, and effort applied in the CSF has been sporadic because of focused effort in the more accessible state fishery. As a result of data limitations, a plausible initial biomass estimate could not be established for white teatfish, and the status of the stock is uncertain with respect to both biomass and fishing mortality. Since stock status classification is at the fishery level, caution is required when considering status at the level of an individual reef. Historical catch at some reefs has been high, and impacts of this reef-level catch should be considered further.
Given the lack of stock assessments of the group of other sea cucumber species, the biomass for this multispecies stock is classified as uncertain.Since there was no catch of other sea cucumber species in 2016–17, the stock is classified as not subject to overfishing.
The large number of species taken by the Aquarium Sector of the CSF means that it is not practical to assess each species or stock separately; hence, multiple species are aggregated into a multispecies stock. Aquarium fish species also occur in coastal Queensland waters, including around the Great Barrier Reef. Ocean currents may cause high inter-reef dispersal of fish larvae (Ryan & Clarke 2005); however, for management purposes, the aquarium fishes within the boundaries of the CSF are considered as a single stock.
The ABARES assessment of the Aquarium Sector (Leatherbarrow & Woodhams 2015), based on data up to the 2008–09 fishing season, indicated that fishing in the sector was unlikely to be having an adverse impact on the stock. Under current permit conditions, operators can only fish about 7 per cent of suitable habitat within the CSF in any given year. Around 35 per cent of the suitable habitat in the fishery is fully protected within the Coringa–Herald and Lihou Reef national nature reserves (Figure 3.1). Investigation of annual extraction rates for key commercial fish families suggests that historical extraction rates have been very low. Furthermore, a species-specific risk assessment suggests low or very low risk to the species harvested in the fishery (Leatherbarrow & Woodhams 2015).
Since the last assessment (Leatherbarrow & Woodhams 2015), there have been no substantial changes to catch levels, species composition of catches or operational conditions. In 2016–17, the catch decreased by 5,651 individuals, remaining below the trigger and therefore unlikely to have a detrimental impact on the stock. The family-specific triggers in the harvest strategy for the Aquarium Sector of the CSF are being revised based on the ABARES assessment (Leatherbarrow & Woodhams 2015). It is expected that the harvest strategy will require a species-level catch analysis if a trigger is met.
Stock status determination
Based on the most recent assessment (Leatherbarrow & Woodhams 2015) and recent fishing activity levels, the Aquarium Sector stock is classified as not overfished and not subject to overfishing.
Tropical rock lobster
Tropical rock lobster
Line drawing: FAO
Tropical rock lobster (Panulirus ornatus) populations in the Coral Sea, northern Queensland (Crayfish and Rocklobster Fishery) and Torres Strait are thought to comprise a single biological stock, as a result of the mixing of larvae in the Coral Sea (Pitcher et al. 2005). Stock assessments have only been made on subcomponents of this biological stock (Keag, Flood & Saunders 2012). Although catch records suggest that P. ornatus has accounted for most of the historical catch (with smaller quantities of P. versicolor; Chambers 2015), recent consultation with fishers has confirmed that lobster catch is unlikely to include P. ornatus (CSIRO, 2015, pers. comm.).
Catches of tropical rock lobster ranged from less than 200 kg to more than 2 t per year between 2000 and 2004. Annual catches have been less than 2 t since 2005, and no lobster has been caught in the dive sector since 2006–07.
No quantitative stock assessment has been undertaken on Coral Sea tropical rock lobster. As a result of limited targeting of lobster in the Coral Sea, insufficient information is available from logbook data to estimate stock size or sustainable yields. However, when the number of reefs, the potential reef area in the CSF, and the pattern of catch and effort recorded in fisher logbooks are considered, it is likely that none of the major reefs in the CSF have ever been extensively fished. Extrapolated estimates of lobster density on Coral Sea reefs, inferred from catch rates, suggest that lobster abundance is likely to be many times higher than would be required to support the total historical catch of less than 10 t (Chambers 2015). Consequently, current fishing activity in the sector is unlikely to be having an adverse impact on the stock (Chambers 2015).
Stock status determination
Based on the number of reefs, the potential reef area and low levels of fishing effort, the tropical rock lobster stock is classified as not overfished.Lobster was not harvested in the 2016–17 season, and the stock is classified as not subject to overfishing.
Line, trawl and trap sectors
Because of the large number of finfish, shark and crustacean species taken by these sectors, it is not practical to assess each species or stock separately. For management purposes, catch in the sectors is considered to be a single stock.
The total landed catch across four different fishing gears was 49.9 t in 2016–17, which was similar to 2015–16, when 51.6 t was landed. No trap effort has been recorded since 2010–11, and no trawl effort has been recorded since 2006–07. The number of hooks deployed in auto-longline and dropline methods declined to 147,204 in 2016–17, from 169,070 in 2015–16; the number of lines set using the mechanised handline, and rod-and-reel methods increased from zero to 160 for the same period (Table 3.2). A total of 49 per cent of the catch was taken using demersal longline (24.4 t), 36 per cent using mechanised handline (18.0 t), 9 per cent using dropline (4.7 t) and 5 per cent using rod and reel (2.7 t).
The Line and Trap, and Trawl and Trap sectors take a wide variety of finfish, shark and, historically, crustacean species (using trawl gear). There are no formal, single-species stock assessments for any of the species taken in these sectors. In 2012, ABARES used a multispecies approach that considered historical catch levels and conservative yield estimates to evaluate stock status (Larcombe & Roach 2015). The work summarised catch and effort across sectors, and species taken by line-and-trap operations. Three separate species assemblages were considered: a deep assemblage, a reef assemblage and a shark assemblage. Although results varied at the reef level, recent harvest from these assemblages was considered unlikely to constitute overfishing when the total harvest was considered across the fishery.
In 2017, the yield scenarios for some species in the deep assemblage were revised based on new natural mortality (M) estimates (Wakefield et al. 2015; Williams et al. 2015) and changes in species composition, leading to a reduction in both species-specific and deep assemblage MSY estimates. It was also noted that 0.3 was an appropriate overarching exploitation constant to use for the CSF deepwater scalefish assemblage (Fry, Brewer & Venables 2006; Kirkwood, Beddington & Rossouw 1994). The harvest strategy for the line, trawl and trap sectors of the CSF is being updated, based on the ABARES revised MSY estimates for the ‘combined deepwater assemblage’ and updates to taxonomy.
At the fishery level, the total line catch in 2016–17 (49.9 t) was higher than the most conservative (low biomass and lowest exploitation constant) revised estimate of all-species sustainable yield (31.5 t), but lower than the estimate for medium biomass and lowest exploitation constant (90.2 t) (Larcombe & Roach 2015). In 2016–17, flame snapper (Etelis coruscans) constituted approximately 80, 34 and 20 per cent of the auto-longline, dropline and mechanised handline catch, respectively, with a total of 25.1 t caught. In 2016–17, rosy snapper (Pristipomoides filamentosus) constituted approximately 3, 4, 51 and 79 per cent of the auto-longline, dropline, mechanised handline, and rod-and-reel catch, respectively, with a total of 12.2 t caught. In 2016–17, ruby snappers (Etelis spp.) constituted approximately 4, 22 and 3 per cent of the auto-longline, dropline and mechanised handline catch, respectively, with a total of 2.5 t caught. Given that the proportion of flame snapper in the total catch (47 per cent in 2016–17) has increased in recent years, landings of flame snapper should be closely monitored.
In some fishing seasons, sharks have been a large component of the total catch for these sectors—for example, blacktip sharks (Carcharhinus spp.) were more than 50 per cent of the total line catch in 2005–06. However, no data are available to evaluate the impact of this harvest on shark populations in the CSF or the impact on these species throughout their distributions. Therefore, it is difficult to draw conclusions about the biomass status of sharks in these sectors. However, the line catch of sharks has been low (less than 400 kg) for the past decade, and, despite a small increase in 2016–17 to 689 kg (due to an increase in mechanised handline effort), current catches are unlikely to constitute overfishing.
Although trawling has contributed a large proportion of the total catch from the fishery in some years, no trawl operations have been reported in the CSF since the 2006–07 season. Trawlers in the CSF have historically targeted finfish and crustaceans. ABARES did not consider any finfish or crustaceans taken by trawling (Larcombe & Roach 2015), and limited information is available on the sustainability of harvest of these species groups within the fishery.
Stock status determination
The ABARES analyses indicate that the line catch in 2016–17 was within the MSY estimates for the combined deepwater assemblage. However, uncertainty remains in species-specific estimates of MSY, given significant shifts in the species composition of catches during the past 10 years. Therefore, fishing mortality in the Line and Trap Sector is classified as uncertain. As there was no effort in the Trawl and Trap Sector, it remains classified as not subject to overfishing.
Although it is unlikely that the primary commercial finfish that make up the catch of line-and-trap operations are overfished, uncertainty remains about the impact of historical fishing on several low-productivity finfish species, and on sharks and other species that were historically caught in trawl operations. Therefore, the biomass of both the Line and Trap, and Trawl and Trap sectors is classified as uncertain.
3.3 Economic status
Key economic trends
The Aquarium Sector is likely to have contributed most of the value of the CSF in recent years. The sector’s gross value of production (GVP) is difficult to estimate because catch is reported as the number of fish rather than the weight of fish. Furthermore, prices are different for different species, and prices of individual fish vary with sex, colour, size and age. A large proportion of this sector’s catch is exported and traded in United States dollars; as a result, the value of production is influenced by movements in the exchange rate.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics records the exports of live Australian species of ornamental fish (with no distinction made between marine and non-marine species). In 2016–17, these exports were valued at $2.4 million (compared with $2.1 million in 2015–16), of which exports from Queensland accounted for 77 per cent. It is not possible to determine the CSF’s contribution to this total. The Queensland Marine Aquarium Fish Fishery is larger than the CSF in terms of vessel numbers (DEEDI 2010) and is likely to make a larger contribution to total exports than the CSF.
The number of hooks used in the line sector of the fishery declined from 169,070 in 2015–16 to 147,204 in 2016–17 (Table 3.2). The line sector catch declined from 51.6 t in 2015–16 to 49.9 t in 2016–17. The GVP from these sectors also increased, but cannot be reported because of the small number of operators (Figure 3.2).
Little sea cucumber catch and no lobster catch or trawl effort occurred in 2016–17, and therefore these sectors generated very low or zero net economic returns (NER).
The CSF is managed through a range of input controls and output controls. The low-cost approach to management is likely to be appropriate in view of the fishery’s relatively low fishing effort and value.
Performance against economic objective
The existence of latent available effort units in the non-aquarium part of the fishery suggests that fishers have had a low incentive to participate in this part of the fishery, reflecting expectations of low profits. For example, only a small number of vessels have been active in the Line and Trap Sector in recent years (five vessels in 2016–17), despite eight permits being available. Despite the slight decline in fishing effort and catch for this part of the fishery during 2016–17, the influence of this on NER is unclear. Similarly, a lack of information about the mix of fish caught in the Aquarium Sector means that changes in NER remain uncertain, despite the decrease in catch (from 32,462 individuals in 2015–16 to 26,811 individuals in 2016–17) and dive effort (from 1,993 hours in 2015–16 to 1,581 hours in 2016–17).
The CSF is a relatively data-poor fishery, and its performance against the objectives of the Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy (DAFF 2007) is difficult to assess. Given the paucity of data, it is difficult to set management levels (TACs and trigger levels) in accordance with the economic objective of maximising NER.
3.4 Environmental status
The CSF was reaccredited under parts 13 and 13A of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 until 18 December 2020. Conditions placed on the approval include AFMA limiting the take of species listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This includes a requirement that no more than 50 humphead Maori wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) or 40 t of any mixed species belonging to the family Acroporidae are harvested per year from the CSF. AFMA is also required to review the species composition and spatial extent of all coral harvested when a 20 t limit has been reached, and ensure that a disproportionate amount of coral species are not taken from a single reef. Furthermore, AFMA is required to report to CITES on the harvested weight and locations of harvest for each coral species; and the number of individual humphead Maori wrasse, and their sex, length and location of harvest. Other recommendations include reviewing and revising ecological risk assessments, and bycatch and discarding workplans, and developing and implementing fisheries management strategies for the CSF.
In 2007, a qualitative level 1 (Scale, Intensity, Consequence Analysis) ecological risk assessment of eight sectors in the CSF covered a broad suite of species and associated habitats. A semi-qualitative level 2 ecological risk assessment was then undertaken in 2009 for protected species and chondrichthyans (AFMA 2009). Harvest strategy trigger limits may be updated in the Aquarium and line sectors, depending on the outcome of the Commonwealth Marine Reserves Review process, which is currently underway.
AFMA publishes quarterly logbook reports of interactions with protected species on its website. A single interaction with a minke whale (Balaenoptera bonaerensis) was reported in the CSF in 2017; the animal was hooked but released alive.
AFMA 2009, ‘Coral Sea Fishery qualitative risk analysis, part 1, Protected (TEP) and chondrichthyan species’, unpublished report, Australian Fisheries Management Authority, Canberra.
—— 2017, Management arrangements booklet 2017–18—Coral Sea Fishery, AFMA, Canberra.
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