Heard Island and McDonald Islands Fishery

Chapter 25: Heard Island and McDonald Islands Fishery

H Patterson and AH Steven

FIGURE 25.1 Area of the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Fishery, 2018

TABLE 25.1 Status of the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Fishery
Biological status Fishing mortality BiomassFishing mortalityBiomass 
Mackerel icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari)Not subject to overfishingNot overfishedNot subject to overfishingNot overfishedTACs are set in accordance with a precautionary harvest strategy.
Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides)Not subject to overfishingNot overfishedNot subject to overfishingNot overfishedTACs are set in accordance with a precautionary harvest strategy. Most recent estimates of biomass are above the limit reference point.
Economic statusEstimates of NER are not available but are likely to be positive. Likely positive NER for the 2016–17 and 2017–18 fishing seasons are indicated by low levels of latency for targeted species.

Notes: NER Net economic returns. TAC Total allowable catch.

Toothfish steaks
Lee Georgeson, ABARES

[expand all]

25.1 Description of the fishery

Area fished

The Australian external territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands (HIMI) is in the southern Indian Ocean (Figure 25.1), within the area covered by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. The islands and their surrounding territorial waters (out to 12 nautical miles [nm]) are closed to fishing and regulated under the Environment Protection and Management Ordinance 1987, administered by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) of the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy. A 1 nm buffer zone around the territorial waters of HIMI extends the area closed to fishing to 13 nm. The HIMI Marine Reserve was declared in October 2002 and then expanded in March 2014 by proclamation after scientific assessment. The reserve now totals 71,200 km2. Waters between 12 and 200 nm from HIMI are part of the Australian Fishing Zone (AFZ). The Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve Management Plan 2014–2024, made pursuant to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), provides the management regime for the reserve.

Fishing methods and key species

The key target species are Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) and mackerel icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari). The fishery also has catch limits for bycatch species, such as deep-sea skates (Rajidae) and grey rockcod (Lepidonotothen squamifrons), based on assessments of long-term annual yield (Constable, Williams & de la Mare 1998). The catch limits for unicorn icefish (Channichthys rhinoceratus) and grenadiers (Macrourus spp.), another group of bycatch species, were updated in 2015 based on assessments undertaken by the AAD (Dell et al. 2015; Maschette & Dell 2015). The catch limits are regularly reviewed by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority’s (AFMA’s) Sub-Antarctic Resource Assessment Group, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) Scientific Committee and the CCAMLR Commission, and are considered precautionary. Recent updates of the ecological risk assessments have lowered the risk of fishing to finfish bycatch species (see section 25.4). Demersal longline is the main method used in the fishery, with some catch taken by demersal trawl. Trawl has declined rapidly in favour of longline as the main method used to target toothfish. Mackerel icefish are taken exclusively using demersal and midwater trawl.

Management methods

The AAD, in collaboration with AFMA observers and industry, regularly conducts fisheries-independent, random-stratified trawl surveys for target species (Patagonian toothfish and mackerel icefish) to collect relative abundance data, particularly of juvenile age classes. Harvest strategies for the target species are consistent with the precautionary approach implemented by the CCAMLR and have been used to set catch limits since the mid 1990s. The harvest strategies developed for the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Fishery (HIMIF) are consistent with the guidelines of the Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy (Department of Agriculture and Water Resources 2018). For mackerel icefish, the target reference point dictates that the spawning stock biomass be maintained at 75% of the level that would occur in the absence of fishing at the end of a two-year model projection. For Patagonian toothfish, the target reference points dictate that median escapement of the spawning biomass at the end of a 35-year projection period is 50% of the median pre-exploitation level and that the probability of the spawning biomass dropping below 20% of its pre-exploitation median level is less than 10% over the projection.

The importance of the target species (especially mackerel icefish) as prey in the subantarctic ecosystem is taken into account, and catch limits must be sufficiently precautionary to ensure that the abundance of these species meets the ecological needs of dependent species (for example, seabirds and marine mammals). Mackerel icefish in the HIMIF was initially certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council in March 2006 and was recertified in July 2016. Patagonian toothfish in the HIMIF was recertified as sustainable by the council in July 2017.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) longline fishing within the HIMI AFZ, targeting Patagonian toothfish, was a significant problem from the mid 1990s. However, following Australian surveillance and enforcement activities in the area (in cooperation with adjoining nations in the CCAMLR region, notably France), no IUU fishing vessels have been detected since 2004 inside the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) adjacent to HIMI or the French EEZ surrounding the Kerguelen Islands.

Fishing effort

Effort in the HIMIF has been fairly stable, with two to four vessels active at any one time since a total allowable catch (TAC) was first set in the mid 1990s. However, as a result of a higher TAC, seven vessels were active in the 2014–15 fishing season. Four vessels were active in the 2016–17 fishing season.


Catches of mackerel icefish have been variable over time. It is a short-lived species, exhibiting periodic, large, dominant year-classes. This allows high catches for a year or two. Once that year-class dies out and the next cohort is growing, catches are reduced because less biomass is available to the fishery.

Catches of Patagonian toothfish have been more stable over time, with little variation between the 2000–01 and 2013–14 fishing seasons. Catch in the 2014–15 fishing season increased in response to the increased TAC. Catch in 2015–16 was below the TAC by 606 t. This was due to a decrease in catch rates during the fishing season. Possible reasons for this decrease are currently being investigated and may relate to environmental factors. Catches over the past two seasons have been closer to the TACs, although the 2017–18 catch was 387 t below the TAC.

TABLE 25.2 Main features and statistics for the HIMIF

Fishery statistics a

2016–17 fishing season

2017–18 fishing season




Real value (2015–16)



Real value (2016–17)

Mackerel icefish561557Confidential



Patagonian toothfish3,4053,357Confidential



Fishery-level statistics

63 trawl-days

17,089,615 hooks

0 pots hauled

51 trawl-days

16,415,948 hooks

0 pots hauled

Fishing permits4 quota SFR holders4 quota SFR holders
Active vessels c74
Observer coverage100% vessel coverage100% vessel coverage
Fishing methods

Demersal longline, demersal trawl, midwater trawl, pot (fish traps)

Primary landing ports

Port Louis (Mauritius)

Management methods

Input controls: limited entry, gear restrictions, temporal and spatial closures

Output controls: TACs, ITQs

Other: move-on provisions if bycatch thresholds are reached

Primary markets

International: China, eastern Europe, Japan, United States—frozen

Management plan

Heard Island and McDonald Islands Fishery Management Plan 2002 (amended 2011)

a Fishery statistics are provided by fishing season, unless otherwise indicated. Season is 1 December – 30 November. Value statistics are by financial year. b All vessels carry two observers on each trip; 100% of hauls are observed, but generally less than 100% of each haul.
Notes: GVP Gross value of production. ITQ Individual transferable quota. SFR Statutory fishing right. TAC Total allowable catch.

Steve Cunliffe, AFMA

25.2 Biological status

Mackerel icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari)

Mackerel icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari)

Line drawing: FAO

Stock structure

A single stock of mackerel icefish is considered to exist at HIMI; no genetic variation among sites around HIMI has been found (Williams, Smolenski & White 1994). Genetic studies have indicated that the population at HIMI is distinct from other icefish populations in the southern Atlantic Ocean (Kuhn & Gaffney 2006). Mackerel icefish at HIMI and the Kerguelen Plateau in the French EEZ are considered distinct stocks because of their different spawning seasons and growth rates (Williams et al. 2001).

Catch history

The catch history of icefish has been sporadic, with very high and unregulated catches taken by Soviet and Polish fleets across the Kerguelen Plateau in the 1970s, before the declaration of the EEZ around the Kerguelen Islands by France and the AFZ around HIMI. It is uncertain where these earlier catches were taken relative to the current maritime boundaries, although charts from this period indicate that the fishing fleet was aware of some of the banks where icefish currently form aggregations within the Australian EEZ. The initial TAC for icefish was set by the CCAMLR in 1995 following a demersal survey by the AAD. Since then, catches have generally followed the TAC, which takes into account the large natural fluctuations in abundance of the fish (Figure 25.2), except for 2014–15, when catches were well under the TAC because fishers concentrated their efforts on the more valuable Patagonian toothfish (for which the TAC was higher than in previous years). Over the past two seasons, catches have been very close to the TAC, with 519 t taken in 2017–18.

FIGURE 25.2 Catch and TAC of mackerel icefish in the HIMIF, 1971–72 to 2017–18

Note: TAC Total allowable catch.
Source: AFMA

Stock assessment

A random stratified trawl survey in late March to early April 2018 provided information on the abundance and age structure of the mackerel icefish stock (Nowara, Lamb & Ziegler 2018). The 4+ year-class was estimated to account for 51% of the biomass, with a strong 2+ class accounting for 30% (Maschette & Welsford 2018). The stock assessment estimated the current biomass at 6,018 t (Maschette & Welsford 2018). Although the growth parameters used in the assessment were updated, there was only a small effect on the yields. If the 4+ cohort will not be available to the fishery in future years, due to natural mortality, yields of 443 t for the 2018–19 season and 320 t for the 2019–20 season were estimated to satisfy the CCAMLR decision rules. These TACs were endorsed by the CCAMLR (CCAMLR 2018a, b).

Stock status determination

Based on the level of catch, the harvest rate relative to the stock biomass estimate (which, under the harvest strategy, allows for a high rate of escapement) and the robust nature of the assessment (which includes fisheries-independent data), the stock is determined to be not overfished and not subject to overfishing.

Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides)

Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides)

Line drawing: FAO

Stock structure

The Patagonian toothfish stock at HIMI is considered to comprise a population distinct from other regional toothfish populations in the south-west Pacific and Atlantic oceans (Appleyard, Ward & Williams 2002). However, limited genetic variation has been found among populations in the western Indian Ocean sector of the Southern Ocean—that is, HIMI, Crozet Islands, Kerguelen Islands, Marion Island and Prince Edward Islands (Appleyard, Williams & Ward 2004; Toomey et al. 2016). Data from tagging studies (for example, Welsford et al. 2011; Williams et al. 2002) indicate that, although adult toothfish at HIMI are relatively sedentary and usually recaptured within 15 nm of their point of release, in some cases they travel significant distances. For example, toothfish tagged at HIMI have been recaptured approximately 800 nm and 1,000 nm away on the Kerguelen and Crozet plateaus, respectively. Thus, toothfish in the Indian Ocean sector of the Southern Ocean may form a metapopulation, with some limited connectivity between the populations. The stock structure of toothfish on the Kerguelen Plateau is being further investigated in collaboration with French scientists so that population models of toothfish in the area can be refined and management can be improved across the Kerguelen Plateau (Péron et al. 2016; Welsford et al. 2011). For the purposes of the assessment, the HIMI toothfish population is considered to be distinct.

Catch history

Catch of Patagonian toothfish in the HIMIF has declined slightly since the late 1990s, but was relatively stable from the early 2000s to 2013–14 and has mirrored the TAC (Figure 25.3). Because of the higher TAC, catches were greater in 2014–15 and the highest since 1994–95. As noted above, catch rates dropped in the 2015–16 fishing season, but catches in the 2016–17 (3,357 t) and 2017–18 (3,138 t) seasons were closer to the TAC.

FIGURE 25.3 Catch and TAC of Patagonian toothfish in the HIMIF, 1994–95 to 2017–18

Note: TAC Total allowable catch.
Source: AFMA

Stock assessment

The most recent assessment for Patagonian toothfish (Ziegler 2017) was similar to the 2015 assessment, and included updated survey and ageing data, updated growth parameters, updated maturity parameters, updated tag loss estimates, a bias correction for fish emigration, the use of survey biomass and catch proportions instead of abundance numbers, and iterative data weighting (the ‘Francis’ method; Francis 2011). The assessment was run using the agreed version of CASAL.

The assessment agreed by the 2017 Working Group on Fish Stock Assessment estimated that the spawning biomass was 61% of unfished levels (SB2016/SB0 = 0.61; range 0.58–0.64). A catch limit of 3,525 t satisfied the CCAMLR decision rules, and was the recommended TAC for the 2017–18 and 2018–19 fishing seasons (CCAMLR 2017a, b). This TAC is slightly higher than that set for 2015–16 and 2016–17 because the updated maturity parameters indicated higher productivity, which resulted in a higher TAC under the decision rules.

Stock status determination

Given the relatively high spawning biomass, the precautionary TAC that satisfies the CCAMLR decision rules, the robust nature of the stock assessment and the extensive CCAMLR review process, the stock is classified as not overfished and not subject to overfishing.

25.3 Economic status

Key economic trends

Only a small percentage of the TACs for both Patagonian toothfish and mackerel icefish were left uncaught in the 2016–17 and 2017–18 fishing seasons, supporting overall positive net economic returns (NER) for the fishery.

Patagonian toothfish has constituted, on average, more than 90% of the fishery’s annual gross value of production during the past decade. Patagonian toothfish has a higher landing value than mackerel icefish, and experiences strong demand and high prices for export. As such, Patagonian toothfish is the main targeted species in this fishery and consequently drives movement of NER.

Since 2012–13, a commercial TAC has been re-established for mackerel icefish, reflecting increased estimated abundance. Since the TAC of mackerel icefish has been nearly fully caught, at 99%, in the 2016–17 and 2017–18 fishing seasons, it is likely that positive NER were generated for this species.

Management arrangements

A harvest strategy, consistent with the principles of the CCAMLR, is in place for the fishery. The primary management control uses individual transferable quotas (ITQs), in conjunction with input controls. The use of ITQs provides the best chance of achieving maximum efficiency, subject to the fishery’s precautionary harvest strategy and strict operational constraints on vessels. Given the low levels of quota latency, positive NER are likely to be generated in the fishery in a manner that is consistent with the conservative ecological objectives.

25.4 Environmental status

The HIMIF is exempt from export controls under the EPBC Act until 9 October 2026. No additional recommendations apply under this exemption, beyond standard recommendations pertaining to reporting.

In 2018, three ecological risk assessments were completed for the HIMIF using the ‘ecological risk assessment for effects of fishing’ method. The assessments covered the three gear types used in the fishery: demersal trawl, midwater trawl and demersal longline (Bulman et al. 2018; Sporcic et al. 2018a, b). All the assessments were completed to level 1 (Scale Intensity Consequence Analysis). The results for the three assessments were all improved from the previous assessments in 2009. The two trawl gears did not trigger the need for a level 2 analysis because there is limited trawl effort in the fishery. For the longline fishery, although the effort has increased since the previous assessment was undertaken in 2009, improved research and mitigation resulted in only one component (community) requiring further assessment. This was due to a paucity of data on the broader consequences to the ecosystem of removing toothfish. However, ecosystem models of the region are currently being developed and will be used to assess the wider ecosystem effects of fishing.

AFMA publishes quarterly logbook reports of interactions with species protected under the EPBC Act on its website. In the HIMI longline fishery in 2018 (calendar year), nine southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) became entangled in the longlines and eight died; one was released alive. One white-chinned petrel (Procellaria aequinoctialis), one Wilson’s storm petrel (Oceanites oceanicus) and one grey petrel (Procellaria cinerea) also became entangled in the longline and died.

25.5 References

Appleyard, SA, Ward, RD & Williams, R 2002, ‘Population structure of Patagonian toothfish around Heard, McDonald and Macquarie Islands’, Antarctic Science, vol. 14, pp. 364–73.

——, Williams, R & Ward, RD 2004, ‘Population genetic structure of Patagonian toothfish in the West Indian Ocean sector of the Southern Ocean’, CCAMLR Science, vol. 11, pp. 21–32.

Bulman, CM, Sporcic, M, Pethybridge, H & Hobday, A 2018, Ecological risk assessment for effects of fishing. Final report for the demersal longline sub-fishery of the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Fishery 2010/11-2014/15, report for the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, CSIRO, Hobart.

CCAMLR 2017a, Report of the thirty-sixth meeting of the Scientific Committee, SC-CAMLR-XXXVI, Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, Hobart.

—— 2017b, Report of the Working Group on Fish Stock Assessment, WG-FSA-18, CCAMLR, Hobart.

—— 2018a, Report of the thirty-seventh meeting of the Scientific Committee, SC-CAMLR-XXXVII, CCAMLR, Hobart.

—— 2018b, Report of the Working Group on Fish Stock Assessment, WG-FSA-18, CCAMLR, Hobart.

Constable, AJ, Williams, R & de la Mare, WK 1998, ‘Assessment of by-catch in trawl fisheries at Heard and McDonald Islands’, CCAMLR Science, vol. 5, pp. 231–43.

Dell, J, Maschette, D, Woodcock, E & Welsford, D 2015, Biology, population dynamics and preliminary assessment of the long-term yield of Macrourus caml by-caught by the Australian fishery at Heard Island and the McDonald Islands (CCAMLR division 58.8.2), WG-FSA-15/63, report to the CCAMLR Working Group on Fish Stock Assessment, Hobart.

Department of Agriculture and Water Resources 2018, Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy, Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, Canberra.

Francis, RICC 2011, ‘Data weighting in statistical fisheries stock assessment models’, Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, vol. 68, pp. 1124–38.

Kuhn, KL & Gaffney, PM 2006, ‘Preliminary assessment of population structure in the mackerel icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari)’, Polar Biology, vol. 29, pp. 927–35.

Maschette, D & Dell, J 2015, An updated assessment of unicorn icefish (Channichthys rhinoceratus) in division 58.5.2, based on results from the 2015 random stratified trawl survey, WG-FSA-15/50, report to the CCAMLR Working Group on Fish Stock Assessment, Hobart.

—— & Welsford, DC 2018, A preliminary assessment for mackerel icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari) in division 58.5.2, based on results from the 2018 random stratified trawl survey, WG-FSA-18/56, report to the CCAMLR Working Group on Fish Stock Assessment, Hobart.

Nowara, GB, Lamb, TD & Ziegler, P 2018, Estimates of abundance of Dissostichus eleginoides and Champsocephalus gunnari from the random stratified trawl survey in the waters surrounding Heard Island in Division 58.5.2 for 2018, WG-FSA-18/55, report to the CCAMLR Working Group on Fish Stock Assessment, Hobart.

Péron, C, Welsford, DC, Ziegler, P, Lamb, TD, Gasco, N, Chazeau, C & Duhamel, G 2016, ‘Modelling spatial distribution of Patagonian toothfish through life-stages and sex and its implications for the fishery on the Kerguelen Plateau’, Progress in Oceanography, vol. 141, pp. 81–95.

Sporcic, M, Pethybridge, H, Bulman, CM, Hobday, A & Fuller, M 2018a, Ecological risk assessment for effects of fishing. Final report for the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Fishery: demersal trawl sub-fishery 2010/11 to 2014/15, report for AFMA, CSIRO, Hobart.

——, Pethybridge, H, Bulman, CM, Hobday, A & Fuller, M 2018b, Ecological risk assessment for effects of fishing. Final report for the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Fishery: midwater trawl sub-fishery 2010/11 to 2014/15, report for AFMA, CSIRO, Hobart.

Toomey, L, Welsford, D, Appleyard, SA, Polanowski, A, Faux, C, Deagle, BE, Belchier, M, Marthick, J & Jarman, S 2016, ‘Genetic structure of Patagonian toothfish populations from otolith DNA’, Antarctic Science, vol. 28, pp. 347–60.

Welsford, DC, Candy, SG, Lamb, TD, Nowara, GB, Constable, AJ & Williams, R 2011, ‘Habitat use by Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides Smitt 1898) on the Kerguelen Plateau around Heard Island and the McDonald Island’, in G Duhamel & DC Welsford (eds), First symposium on the Kerguelen Plateau: marine ecosystems and fisheries, Societe Francaise d’Ichtyologie, Paris, pp. 125–36.

Williams, R, Smolenski, AJ & White, RWG 1994, ‘Mitochondrial DNA variation of Champsocephalus gunnari Lonnberg (Pisces: Channichthyidae) stocks on the Kerguelen Plateau, southern Indian Ocean’, Antarctic Science, vol. 6, pp. 347–52.

——, van Wijk, E, Constable, A & Lamb, T 2001, The fishery for Champsocephalus gunnari and its biology at Heard Island (Division 58.5.2), WAMI-01/04, report to the CCAMLR Workshop on Assessment Methods for Icefish, Hobart.

——, Tuck, GN, Constable, AJ & Lamb, T 2002, ‘Movement, growth and available abundance to the fishery of Dissostichus eleginoides Smitt, 1898 at Heard Island, derived from tagging experiments’, CCAMLR Science, vol. 9, pp. 33–48.

Ziegler, P 2017, Anintegrated stock assessment for the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) Fishery in Division 58.5.2, WG-FSA-17/19, report to the CCAMLR Working Group on Fish Stock Assessment, Hobart.

Last reviewed: 4 November 2019
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