Time to ban crayfish fishing?

Mar 21, 2019 The catch

For many recreational fishers around the country, catching a feed of crayfish is becoming a distant memory, writes John Eichelsheim. What should be done?

At a 60th birthday celebration in the Bay of Islands in January, a diver among a group of friends who holiday there every summer produced a couple of modest-sized crayfish (rock lobsters) for the BBQ. Smothered in garlic butter, they were delicious, but didn’t go far when shared among 40-odd guests.

The plan had been for Steve to take his recreational limit of six crayfish for the shared meal, but despite years of diving experience in the area and plenty of effort on the day, he was only able to find two legal-sized specimens.

The Bay of Islands falls inside the CRA1 fisheries management area, which is apparently in better health than CRA2, but talking to Steve and other holiday fishers staying at the camping ground, finding crayfish gets more difficult each year. The numbers are simply not there.

Nearly a year ago in this column, I wrote about the parlous state of the rock lobster fishery inside the CRA2 management area, which encompasses the Hauraki Gulf and Bay of Plenty. Numbers are now so low, according to some researchers, if something isn’t done to reduce fishing pressure, crayfish could become ‘functionally extinct’ in the wider region within the next few years.

The CRA2 fishery management area supports New Zealand’s largest population of recreational fishers, as well as a substantial commercial rock lobster fishery. Crayfish are an important species, not only for recreational fishers who dive or set pots for them, but also Maori customary fishers.

As the region’s population has grown, so has the number of recreational fishers. Access to the water has never been easier and pleasure boat numbers have exploded. The fishing pressure resulting from these demographic changes, coupled with increasingly intensive commercial fishing activity, has caused a significant decline in crayfish abundance.

In short, CRA2 has been overfished for years and warnings of its imminent collapse from scientists, recreational fishers and iwi have been ignored. Now crayfish numbers, particularly in the Hauraki Gulf, are at critically low levels.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) recognises there is a problem: in April 2018 it slashed the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) from 416.5 tonnes to 173 tonnes. The TAC is the combined commercial, recreational and customary catch.

The new TAC is split – 80 tonnes commercial, 34 tonnes recreational and 16.5 tonnes customary Maori. To ensure recreational fishers don’t exceed the new allocation, MPI is currently negotiating reducing the daily bag limit from six crayfish to three, a proposal that has the support of many recreational fishers.

Significantly, in 2018 commercial fishers were unable to catch even their reduced allocation. It’s a familiar pattern: while the number of cray pots set out has doubled since 2002, in most seasons, commercial fishers in CRA2 struggled to catch their quota.

That’s because, says conservation group Forest & Bird, the crayfish population is collapsing towards extinction.

Forest & Bird is advocating a total closure of the CRA2 fishery. That’s a total ban on fishing for crayfish in the whole of the greater Hauraki Gulf and Bay of Plenty region, for an initial period of three years. The ban would apply equally to commercial, recreational and customary Maori fishers.

According to Forest & Bird spokesperson Katrina Goddard, speaking to the NZ Herald, “… it isn’t about recreational versus commercial rights, nor is it about the economics – it’s about the health of our oceans and taking sustainability seriously.”

Crayfish are a vital part of the marine ecosystem, says Goddard: “When their numbers fall too low, the ocean floor and reefs are overwhelmed by kina which destroy kelp forest and other habitat for fish and marine life. The flow-on effects are very serious.”

Forest & Bird maintains the proposed ban would allow crayfish numbers in the Gulf and Bay of Plenty time to begin a recovery.

The fishing ban proposal has won support from the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council. NZSFC and Legasea spokesman Scott McIndoe told the Herald he reckons another year of unconstrained commercial and recreational fishing will probably break the fishery.

“I just don’t think there is any other option!” McIndoe no longer fishes for crayfish, claiming “they just aren’t there anymore.” He remembers when they were abundant around Whangaparaoa and Kawau Island. He’s fished the CRA2 area for 50 years, but a few years ago cray catches dried up to the extent that fishing for them was no longer worth the effort. His experience is far from unique.

The New Zealand Sport Fishing Council supports the MPI’s proposed recreational bag limit cut from six to three crays, but McIndoe wonders if it will make any difference since most fishers struggle to catch one or two crayfish per trip.

Last year’s CRA2 TAC cuts were based on a 2017 stock assessment. McIndoe and others suspect the situation has got considerably worse since 2017. The minister expects an update later this year, but in the interim, he has asked his ministry to work with other scientists and the fishing industry to improve monitoring and management of the CRA2 rock lobster fishery. During the last TAC consultation process, a total fishing ban was an option, but considered too draconian.

I suspect public support for a total fishing ban may be greater than the minister or anyone else thinks. If a fishing ban offers a chance at a meaningful resurgence in crayfish numbers, with all the associated benefits to our inshore marine ecosystem, it is worth trying. Even if it results in only a modest improvement in crayfish numbers, which is more likely given the short timeframe, it’s still worthwhile.

If nothing else, the proposed fishing ban is stimulating more meaningful debate around fisheries management, which, given the state of the CRA2 rock lobster fishery (and others!), is long overdue.

Personally, I’d like the minister to heed the call to ban fishing for rock lobsters in the Hauraki Gulf and Bay of Plenty for a minimum of three years, maybe five. And when the fishery recovers sufficiently to reopen, to commit MPI to an extremely conservative management regime to avoid another collapse.


Around the northeastern coast of the North Island, ‘kina barrens’ have become an unwelcome feature of the underwater landscape.

Kina barrens are characterised by bare rock overrun with sea urchins (kina). The reason kina barrens exist is widely believed to be an explosion in the sea urchin population because predatory snapper and crayfish are no longer present in quantities large enough to control urchin numbers. (Some scientists believe barrens are nothing to do with kina but rather the result of storm damage… Either way, the balance has been upset.)

Kina feed on kelp and when their population density gets high enough, they quickly denude reefs of their kelp cover. The extent of reef stripped bare by rapacious urchins is growing and new kina barrens are forming all the time. Along rocky shorelines in parts of the Hauraki Gulf, it is the dominant underwater feature.

Crayfish and snapper are apex reef predators. Larger examples of both prey on urchins, keeping their numbers in check. But in the Hauraki Gulf most of the large snapper and nearly all the crayfish have been removed by over fishing, allowing kina to proliferate.

Kelp forests provide crayfish with cover from predators, as well as habitat for the animals they feed on. Without kelp forests, crayfish larvae have nowhere safe to settle, negatively affecting recruitment, which further impacts on crayfish numbers.

And in negative feedback loop, kina barrens are not suitable habitat for crayfish, so there are now fewer places for remaining lobsters and any new recruits to live. With so few crayfish (and large snapper) present, kina numbers will continue to grow, along with the extent of kina barrens…