Chapter 18: Torres Strait Prawn Fishery
A Williams and K Mazur
TABLE 18.1 Status of the Torres Strait Prawn Fishery
| Biological status || Fishing mortality|| Biomass||Fishing mortality||Biomass|| |
|Brown tiger prawn (Penaeus esculentus)||Not subject to overfishing||Not overfished||Uncertain||Uncertain||Uncertainty in estimates of biomass and fishing mortality because of the significant time since last stock assessment.|
|Blue endeavour prawn (Metapenaeus endeavouri)||Not subject to overfishing||Not overfished||Uncertain||Uncertain||Uncertainty in estimates of biomass and fishing mortality because of the significant time since last stock assessment.|
Economic status||High levels of latency indicate low NER for this fishery. NER are likely to have declined in 2016–17 following a significant decline in production of brown tiger prawn and lower gross value of production per vessel.|
Notes: NER Net economic returns.
18.1 Description of the fishery
The Torres Strait Prawn Fishery (TSPF) operates in the eastern part of the Torres Strait Protected Zone (TSPZ) and south of the TSPZ in nearby Queensland waters (called the ‘outside but near area’) (Figure 18.1). This fishery is shared by Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) under formal arrangements in the Torres Strait Treaty (see Chapter 15).
Fishing methods and key species
Prawns are harvested at night using demersal otter trawl (prawn trawl). Fishers usually deploy four nets divided into two pairs, with a pair of nets towed from a boom on each side of the fishing vessel. Trawl tows last between two and a half and four hours at an average speed of around 3 knots. Fishers normally complete three or four tows per night (DSEWPaC 2013; Turnbull et al. 2007).
The target species of the fishery are brown tiger prawn (Penaeus esculentus) and blue endeavour prawn (Metapenaeus endeavouri). Byproduct species include redspot king prawn (Melicertus longistylus),1 slipper lobster (Scyllarides spp.), Moreton Bay bugs (Thenus spp.), octopus (Octopodidae), cuttlefish (Sepia spp.) and squid (Teuthoidea).
The Australian component of the fishery is managed by the Torres Strait Protected Zone Joint Authority (PZJA), established under the Torres Strait Fisheries Act 1984 (Cwlth). Currently, all licences in the fishery are held by the non-Indigenous Transferable Vessel Holder Sector.
Under the Torres Strait Treaty, PNG is entitled to 25 per cent of the TSPF resource in the Australian jurisdiction (excluding the effort in nearby Queensland waters), and Australia is entitled to 25 per cent of the TSPF resource in the PNG jurisdiction (Cocking 2016). Historically, some Australian boats fished in PNG waters, but this ceased soon after ratification of the Torres Strait Treaty. There is no official record of PNG boats fishing in Australian waters, and PNG operators have only sporadically activated their entitlements to fish in their own waters of the TSPZ.
The fishery is subject to several spatial and temporal closures (Figure 18.1) that were initiated for various reasons, including protection of undersized tiger prawns (those that are below commercially marketable sizes; Watson & Mellors 1990), protection of pearl shell beds and protection of breeding populations of marine turtles.
The PZJA released a harvest strategy for the TSPF in 2011 (AFMA 2011), which defines a set of trigger, target and limit reference points, and decision rules for the whole fishery, based on the most sensitive target species—tiger prawn. A catch trigger also exists for endeavour prawn. Triggers are set at levels that acknowledge the reduced effort in the fishery in recent years, and the harvest strategy provides for revision and update to the trigger levels if activity in the fishery increases. The strategy incorporates a long-term economic target that will be pursued once catch-and-effort triggers in the fishery are reached. A short-term economic target is not in place because the fishery does not currently have the resources to estimate biomass at maximum economic yield (BMEY). Also, since a BMEY target would limit the available fishing days, there is concern that this limitation would put additional economic pressure on operators who are fishing, when effort is already well below target levels.
The harvest strategy limit reference point is 20 per cent of unfished biomass (0.2B0), consistent with the default provided for in the Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy (HSP; DAFF 2007). The current target reference point (BTARG) is the biomass that would support maximum sustainable yield (BMSY) for the most sensitive of the target species—tiger prawn. In contrast, the triggers in this fishery are aligned with the concept of MEY, consistent with the fishery’s goal to move to MEY-based targets when fishing activity increases. The triggers are based on fishers catching 75 per cent of Australia’s portion of total allowable catch (or expending 75 per cent of Australia’s portion of the total allowable effort [TAE]). The proxy used for BMEY is 1.2BMSY, equating to 0.34B0 where BMSY = 0.28B0.
From 1999 to 2011, fishing effort in the TSPF decreased steadily from more than 10,000 days to less than 1,500 days, largely as a result of economic conditions in the fishery (Figure 18.2). Effort increased to approximately 3,000 days in 2015. But since then, effort has continued to decline, and reached 935 days in 2017, the lowest recorded for this fishery. The 2017 effort represents 13.6 per cent of the TAE for the Australian fishery.2
In addition to brown tiger prawn and blue endeavour prawn, king prawn (M. longistylus, M. latisulcatus and M. plebejus) has also been a historically important component of the catch in the fishery. The total combined catch of brown tiger prawn, blue endeavour prawn and king prawn decreased from a historical high of more than 2,000 t in 1999 to less than 300 t in 2011 (Figure 18.2). Since the 1990s, the total combined catch has declined steadily, but increased slightly in the period 2011–2015 (Figure 18.2; Table 18.2). The total combined catch in 2017 (137 t) was the lowest since 1978 when catch records commenced for this fishery. The proportion of brown tiger prawn in the total catch has increased from below 30 per cent in 1999 to more than 70 per cent in each year since 2010, and was more than 80 per cent in 2016 and 2017.
TABLE 18.2 Main features and statistics for the TSPF
|Stock||TAC (t)||Catch (t)||Real value (2015–16)||TAC (t)||Catch (t)||Real value (2016–17)|
|Brown tiger prawn||–||369||$7.3 million||–||111||$3.1 million|
|Blue endeavour prawn||–||57||$1.0 million||–||25||$0.3 million|
|Fishing permits||60 (38 inactive licences not attached to vessels)||60 (47 inactive licences)|
|Observer coverage||34 days (3% of active effort)||19 days (2.2% of active effort)|
|Fishing methods||Demersal otter trawl|
|Primary landing ports||Cairns, Innisfail (Queensland)|
|Management methods||Input controls: total allowable effort on fishing nights, individual transferable effort units, limited entry (although licences are transferable), gear restrictions, time and area closures, vessel length restrictions|
|Primary markets||Domestic: frozen
International: minor to Japan—frozen
|Management plan||Torres Strait Prawn Fishery Management Plan 2009|
a Fishery statistics are provided by fishing season, unless otherwise indicated. Fishing season since 2016 is from 1 February to 1 December. Fishing season before 2016 was from 1 March to 1 December. Real-value statistics are provided by financial year.
b Total fishery catch includes the catch of brown tiger, endeavour and king prawns only.
c Includes non-prawn byproduct species.
TAC Total allowable catch.
– Not applicable.
1 Although small volumes of other king prawn species (M. latisulcatus, M. plebejus) are recorded in logbook records, research surveys in Torres Strait suggest that the commercial catch largely consists of a single species for each prawn group—that is, brown tiger prawn (P. esculentus), blue endeavour prawn (M. endeavouri) and redspot king prawn (M. longistylus) (C Turnbull, AFMA consultant, 2015, pers. comm., 23 July).
2 The 9,200 days of TAE in the fishery are shared between Australia and PNG, with Australian operators able to access 6,867 fishing days before an option to access unused PNG days is considered by the PZJA (Cocking 2016); 2,070 fishing days are available to PNG operators and 263 days are held in trust by the Australian Government.
18.2 Biological status
Brown tiger prawn (Penaeus esculentus)
Line drawing: FAO
Brown tiger prawn is endemic to tropical and subtropical waters of Australia. There is evidence of genetic separation of brown tiger prawns from the east and west coasts of Australia (Ward et al. 2006); however, the stock structure across northern Australia is uncertain. Brown tiger prawns are considered to constitute a single stock in Torres Strait for assessment and management purposes.
Catch of brown tiger prawn has fluctuated over time, peaking in 1998 at 965 t. Catch decreased to 204 t in 2011 but increased to 560 t in 2015. In 2017, catch of brown tiger prawn was 111 t, the lowest catch reported in this fishery (Figure 18.3).
The most recent stock assessment of brown tiger prawn in Torres Strait was completed in 2006 using data to the end of 2003 (O’Neill & Turnbull 2006). Since the 2006 assessment, further assessment model runs have been conducted with updated data (Turnbull & Rose 2007), but no full assessments have been undertaken. The most recent model runs (Turnbull & Rose 2007) indicate that tiger prawn biomass steadily increased from 2000 to 2006, and was between 60 and 80 per cent of the unfished (1980) biomass (0.6B0 and 0.8B0). This was considerably higher than estimates of BMSY, which were 0.28B0 to 0.38B0, depending on the spawner–recruitment relationship used (O’Neill & Turnbull 2006). A delay-difference model (O’Neill & Turnbull 2006) estimated MSY for tiger prawns to be 606 t (90 per cent confidence interval [CI] 436–722 t), and effort at MSY (EMSY) to be 8,245 fishing nights3 (90 per cent CI 5,932–9,823 nights) using the Ricker spawner–recruitment relationship. Using the Beverton–Holt spawner–recruitment relationship, MSY was estimated to be 676 t (90 per cent CI 523–899 t) and EMSY to be 9,197 nights (90 per cent CI 7, 116–12,231 nights).
The 2006 assessment is still used to inform management decisions in the fishery. However, brown tiger prawn is a relatively short-lived species, with variable recruitment that can be influenced by environmental factors. Changes in fleet dynamics and vessel efficiency are also likely to influence the long-term relevance of the 2006 assessment, as are fluctuations in catch and effort. As a result, the outputs from the 2006 stock assessment will become less relevant over time. Mediating this risk is the substantial underuse of fishing effort, with less than 50 per cent of available fishing nights being used each year since 2008, and annual catches remaining below the 2006 mean estimate of MSY since 2005 (Figure 18.3). Nominal catch rates for tiger prawn have declined since 2013, but remain above levels reported in the 1990s and early 2000s (Turnbull & Cocking 2018). In addition, the harvest strategy for the fishery (AFMA 2011) imposes conservative trigger points—set at 4,000 days and 680 t of tiger prawn, which corresponds to approximately 75 per cent of the Australian portion of the estimated effort and catch at B34 (BMEY), respectively. When these trigger points are reached, additional research, a revised harvest strategy to develop decision rules for setting the TAE based on BMEY, and an updated stock assessment are required. Catch and effort in the fishery remain below the trigger points.
Stock status determination
Assessment of brown tiger prawn status in 2017 is based on a comparison of recent catches (Figure 18.3) with estimates of MSY from the 2006 assessment (O’Neill & Turnbull 2006), a comparison of recent effort with estimates of EMSY from the 2006 assessment (O’Neill & Turnbull 2006) and the 2006 estimates of biomass (Turnbull & Rose 2007).
The tiger prawn catch has been below the 2006 estimates of MSY for both Ricker (606 t) and Beverton–Holt (676 t) spawner–recruitment relationships since 2005. The effort in the fishery has been below the 2006 estimates of EMSY for the Beverton–Holt (9,197 nights) and Ricker (8,245 nights) spawner–recruitment relationships since 2003 and 2004, respectively. However, uncertainty around the current level of MSY, and therefore EMSY, is increasing with time since the most recent stock assessment in 2006. As a result, the stock is classified as uncertain with regard to the level of fishing mortality.
Although the HSP does not apply to the jointly managed TSPF, the default HSP proxy limit of 0.2B0 is used to inform status evaluations. The 2006 estimate of tiger prawn biomass (between 0.6B0 and 0.8B0) was considerably higher than the estimate of BMSY and well above the HSP proxy limit reference point of 0.2B0. However, uncertainty around the current level of biomass is increasing with time since the most recent stock assessment in 2006, and the cause of recent declines in catch rates is unclear. Therefore, the biomass status of the stock is classified as uncertain.
Blue endeavour prawn (Metapenaeus endeavouri)
Line drawing: FAO
Endeavour prawn occurs across northern Australia from Shark Bay in Western Australia to Moreton Bay in Queensland. Little is known about the stock structure of blue endeavour prawn across this region. In Torres Strait, they are considered to constitute a single stock for management and assessment purposes.
Annual catches of blue endeavour prawn were relatively high during the 1990s, averaging more than 1,000 t and peaking at more than 1,500 t in 1999 (Figure 18.4). Annual catches have decreased since then, reaching the lowest reported catch of 25 t in 2017. This decline reflects decreasing fishing effort through the 2000s and increased targeting of tiger prawns because of their higher market value (Turnbull & Cocking 2018).
The most recent stock assessment for blue endeavour prawn was completed in 2009, using data to the end of 2007 (Turnbull et al. 2009). This assessment evaluated abundance of cohorts (annual year-classes) of the stock through time, allowing tracking of size-related variability in productivity.
A deterministic size- and age-structured model with a fixed stock–recruitment steepness value of 0.5 provided an MSY estimate of 1,105 t (90 per cent CI 1,060–1,184 t) and an EMSY estimate of 10,079 nights (90 per cent CI 9,667–10,800 nights). A stochastic size- and age-structured assessment was also run, but this model did not achieve convergence of parameter estimates and was not accepted. Similarly, a deterministic model with a fixed steepness of 0.7 did not achieve convergence. The biomass estimate from the deterministic model, with steepness fixed at 0.5, was approximately 0.8B0, which is considerably higher than the estimate of 0.43B0 for BMSY.
The 2009 stock assessment is still used to inform management decisions in the fishery. However, similar to brown tiger prawn, the outputs from the 2009 stock assessment for blue endeavour prawn have become less relevant over time, with increased uncertainty in current status due to highly variable recruitment, short life span, changes in fleet dynamics and vessel efficiency, and changes in catch and effort. Furthermore, nominal catch rates for blue endeavour prawn have declined by more than 50 per cent since 2008 (Turnbull & Cocking 2018).
Stock status determination
The stock status classification of blue endeavour prawn in 2017 is based on a comparison of recent catches with estimates of MSY from the 2009 assessment, a comparison of recent fishing effort with estimates of EMSY, and the 2009 estimates of biomass. Since 2002, catch has been below the lower 90 per cent CI of estimated MSY (1,060 t), and effort has been below the lower 90 per cent CI of EMSY (9,667 nights). However, uncertainty around the current level of MSY, and therefore EMSY, is increasing with time since the most recent stock assessment in 2009. As a result, the stock is classified as uncertain with regard to the level of fishing mortality.
Although the HSP does not apply to the TSPF, in the absence of a prescribed limit reference point for this stock, the default HSP proxy limit reference point of 0.2B0 is used to determine stock status. The 2007 biomass estimate of 0.8B0 is above the estimated BMSY of 0.43B0 and well above the HSP proxy limit reference point of 0.2B0. However, uncertainty around the current level of biomass is increasing with time since the most recent stock assessment in 2009, and the cause of the significant decline in catch rates since 2008 is unclear. Therefore, biomass status of the stock is classified as uncertain.
3 The terms ‘day’ and ‘night’ are both used in this chapter when discussing fishing effort because effort units are allocated in notional ‘days’ (referring to a 24-hour period), but fishing actually occurs at night.
18.3 Economic status
Key economic trends
Economic surveys by ABARES of key Commonwealth fisheries since the early 1990s provide information that allows calculation of net economic returns (NER) and financial performance measures for the TSPF. Figure 18.5 presents the historical data per vessel for gross value of production (GVP), NER and hours trawled between 2006–07 and 2016–17.
Estimates of NER are not available for 2008–09, 2009–10 or from 2012–13 to 2016–17 because economic surveys of the fishery were not done for these years. NER for the TSPF have been negative since 2004–05 (Skirtun et al. 2015). Based on the latest survey in 2013, it was estimated that NER remained negative at –$2.3 million in the 2012–13 financial year, an improvement from –$2.7 million in 2011–12. High input costs and low prices in 2011–12 and 2012–13 made it difficult to operate profitably in the fishery (Skirtun et al. 2015).
A significant decline in GVP in 2016–17 suggests a decline in NER. In 2016–17, GVP in the TSPF was $4.0 million, 55 per cent lower than the GVP recorded for the fishery in 2015–16. Tiger prawn accounted for the largest share of GVP (79 per cent; $3.1 million), followed by endeavour prawn (8 per cent; $0.3 million) and king prawn (1 per cent; $0.1 million). Other prawn species and other species caught as byproducts accounted for the remainder (12 per cent) of the GVP of the fishery.
Between 2005–06 and 2009–10, the number of hours trawled per vessel almost halved in response to declines in profitability. This is reflected in the GVP per vessel (an indicator of vessel revenue), which followed a declining trend from 2007–08, reaching its lowest level in 2009–10 before increasing significantly in 2014–15 and 2015–16 and declining again in 2016–17 (Figure 18.5). In 2016–17, GVP per vessel declined by 40 per cent to $248,000, and the effort input for the season averaged 895 trawl-hours per vessel. The effort input per vessel declined by 21 per cent in 2016–17.
The fishery is managed using input controls. Limits on the number of boat licences and tradeable fishing nights are the main input controls, and these are combined with other restrictions on gear and vessel characteristics (Cocking 2016). In their analysis of profit trends in the TSPF, Skirtun and Vieira (2012) suggested that management arrangements in the fishery may have been a constraint on greater productivity gains and, therefore, higher profitability. The recent divergence in trends in economic performance of the Northern Prawn Fishery (NPF) and the TSPF may also be linked to differences in management arrangements. Although both the NPF and the TSPF are managed with input controls, the TSPF is also managed through limits on maximum vessel size (AFMA 2011). This restriction may have constrained autonomous adjustment in the TSPF and, as a result, fishery-level efficiency. High levels of latent effort have remained in the TSPF and are likely to have reduced the incentive to trade in effort entitlements, limiting the movement of effort entitlements to the most efficient fishers.
The TSPF has limits on maximum vessel size (AFMA 2011). Because larger vessels tend to have larger fuel and catch-holding capacities, such vessels can stay at sea longer and are better able to operate in geographically isolated fisheries such as the TSPF. By preventing the use of larger vessels, this management arrangement may be constraining economic performance in the fishery. In recognition of these issues, in early 2011, the Torres Strait Prawn Management Advisory Committee (TSPMAC) recommended trials of alternative fishing gear and vessel size configurations (PZJA 2011). In 2013, the TSPMAC recommended providing supplementary information to the PZJA to be considered with the original decision for the trial to take place (PZJA 2013a). Subsequently, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) commissioned research to consider the flow of economic benefits from the prawn fishery to Traditional Inhabitants and local communities (PZJA 2013b). The research identified a number of possible ways to increase the flow of benefits from the TSPF to communities. The TSPMAC has been considering the options and any requirement for further research (PZJA 2016).
Performance against economic objective
The TSPF is managed according to the economic objective of promoting economic efficiency and ensuring the optimal use of the fishery resource, consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable development and a precautionary approach. Although these objectives are implicitly consistent with maximising economic yields, the harvest strategy for the fishery does not currently have a target biomass level associated with an estimate of MEY (BMEY). This has been attributed to the low economic value of the fishery and the high cost of estimating a BMEY target (AFMA 2011). The BMSY target will remain until decision rules relating to increased fishing activity are activated that will require a BMEY target to be determined and implemented (AFMA 2011).
The biomass levels of brown tiger and blue endeavour prawns are well above BMSY, and so economic performance is currently not constrained by biomass. Although estimates of NER for 2015–16 are not available, a significant improvement in fishery-level GVP and GVP per vessel relative to 2012–13, and improvement in the operating environment as a result of lower diesel fuel input costs and a lower Australian dollar exchange rate suggest an improvement in economic performance of the fishery. Despite these positive signs, the high level of licence latency remains a concern for the fishery.
18.4 Environmental status
Prawn trawling is a relatively non-selective fishing method. As a result, a variety of byproduct and bycatch species are caught with the target species. Bycatch typically includes finfish, cephalopods, crabs, lobsters, scallops, sharks and rays. Trawling also has potential impacts on benthic communities and protected species, including turtles, sea snakes and syngnathids (seahorses and pipefish). Research surveys between 2004 and 2006 collected independent data on the weight, composition and distribution of bycatch in the TSPF (Turnbull & Rose 2007). The surveys were in two areas: the main prawn trawling grounds, and adjacent areas that are seasonally or permanently closed to trawling. No major differences were found in the overall composition and abundance of bycatch species between areas that are open, partially closed and entirely closed to trawling. However, there were some differences in the relative proportions of different bycatch species between open and closed areas.
The TSPF is included on the List of Exempt Native Specimens under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) and is exempt from export controls until 9 October 2026.
A level 1 (Scale, Intensity, Consequence Analysis) ecological risk assessment has been conducted for the TSPF (Turnbull et al. 2007). The fishery also has a bycatch and discard workplan that was updated in early 2015 (AFMA 2015). Pitcher et al. (2007) provided comprehensive data on the biodiversity of seabed habitats in Torres Strait, cataloguing more than 3,600 species, comprising fishes, crustaceans and other species that make up the benthos. Examination of the likely extent of past effects of trawling on the benthos and bycatch in the TSPZ indicated that trawling has had an effect on the biomass of 21 of the 256 species analysed. Of the 21 species, 9 have shown a negative response, while 12 have shown an increase in biomass in association with trawling. This research was updated using data to 2011, and showed that, because of a substantial reduction in effort and the trawl footprint since 2005, there is little to no sustainability risk to any species at the current levels of fishing effort (Pitcher 2013).
Since the beginning of the 2002 fishing season, the PZJA has required operators in the TSPF to use turtle excluder devices in trawl gear. In 2004, the use of bycatch reduction devices became mandatory. In May 2008, the PZJA also agreed to implement trawl exclusion zones around Deliverance Island, Kerr Islet and Turu Cay (Figure 18.1) to protect important nesting areas for green turtle (Chelonia mydas)and flatback turtle (Natator depressus).
AFMA publishes quarterly summaries of logbook-reported interactions with protected species on its website. In 2017, 274 sea snakes of unknown species were caught in the TSPF, of which 255 were released alive, 10 were dead and the remaining 9 had an unknown life status. One unidentified turtle was released alive. Three green sawfish (Pristis zijsron) and one unidentified sawfish were released alive.
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