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Lobster fisheries back from the brink
The West Australian On the cray boat 'Giuseppe', Inshore fishing just out of Two Rocks Marina within a 50 square nautical mile area. A dolphin is seen near the boat. Darren Wright waits for the signal from the Skipper, Basil Lenzo, before dropping the re-baited pot. Picture: Simon Santi/The West Australian

Almost five years ago, Basil Lenzo was in a state of shock, reeling from a Barnett Government decision to slash the number of rock lobsters he and other operators could take from WA waters.

Faced with evidence that the lucrative fishery was on the verge of collapse after years of heavy fishing, then fisheries minister Norman Moore practically halved the allowable catch in one of his first acts in the portfolio.

Mr Moore defended the decision at the time as vital after an unprecedented fall in the number of baby lobsters.

But it was seen as a betrayal in the State's $200 million rock lobster industry.

Indeed, it forced many operators to the wall and delivered a crippling blow to small coastal communities that depended heavily on the economic activity it created.

From Augusta in the south to the Abrolhos Islands in the north, a fleet of 460 vessels would be whittled down to 260, taking hundreds of jobs and dreams with them.

Although the anguish of the upheaval has yet to wash away for some fishermen, Mr Lenzo, of Two Rocks, is among a growing number to say the tide is finally turning for the industry.

"One thing I've really noticed in the past six months is that confidence has been renewed in the industry," he said.

"And one side effect of that is that the asset values have gone up because we are optimistic again that there is a future in this industry."

Darren Wright and Philip Thompson. Picture: Simon Santi/ The West Australian

The upbeat comments from Mr Lenzo, who chairs the Western Rock Lobster Council, are a far cry from 2008 and 2009 when fishermen accused the Government of ruining livelihoods.

Curiously, it was another Government decision during that turbulent time that ultimately led to the sector's revival.

In a major departure from the previous rock lobster season, which lasted just months and sparked a virtual catching frenzy, Mr Moore forced the industry into a quota system.

Under the system, commercial operators get an allocated catch but have all year to go out and get it, meaning competition is spread over a much longer period and lobster prices remain higher.

"Under the old system, it was fisherman against fisherman and you were trying to catch as much as you could and catch more than the guy next to you because … you had time constraints," Mr Lenzo said.

For WRLC chief executive John Harrison, the turnaround in fortunes is exemplified by the record high prices fresh rock lobsters have fetched since the new system began properly in January.

Until a couple of weeks ago, fishers were getting $60 a lobster and though the price had eased to about $40, the bottom line was looking promising for the industry, he said.

"The demand can change pretty quickly and it's perhaps too early to be really confident but it would seem that going to quota is going to stabilise the price a little," Mr Harrison said.

"But I'm hesitant to make that bold prediction as correct because we're not even halfway through the first full season."

Philip Thompson throws a cray into the holding tank. Simon Santi/ The West Australian

Another silver lining touted by the sector is its position at the vanguard of fisheries to be given the tick of environmental approval from an international sustainability watchdog.

WA's western rock lobster fishery was the first in the world to gain accreditation from the Marine Stewardship Council - described as the gold standard - and has been re-accredited twice.

Amid demand for sustainable seafood and political fervour for marine parks, which protect big areas of ocean, the industry believes its green credentials are sound.

Darren Wright throws a crayfish into the live holding tank. Simon Santi/The West Australian

Dongara fisherman Bruce Cockman joked that the most common gripe among operators these days was how they had to pay tax again after so many lean years.

"It's a bit different," he laughed.

However, Mr Lenzo is quick to add a cautionary note, saying the resurgence of the industry is not assured and remains exposed to the same environmental changes that floored it last time.

"We don't ever want to go through a period like that again because it was depressed," he said.

"We're not back where we were six or seven years ago. I'm cautiously optimistic that we're getting there but are we completely out of the woods? I don't believe we are."