Dozens of professional rock lobster fishermen are facing financial heartache after a dramatic slump in the number of the prized species being caught so far this summer.
In a development that could push the market price of lobsters over the $40/kg mark, lobster fishermen have reported record low catches as part of the annual "whites run".
The term is a reference to the stage when young adult lobsters - typically about four years old - moult and take on a whitish appearance before migrating offshore.
The event is crucial for many commercial lobster fishermen, particularly those between Jurien Bay and Augusta, who target the run and rely on it to deliver up to 40 per cent of their catch.
Western Rock Lobster Council chairman John Newby said the run this summer had been the worst in two decades and it was likely many fishers would struggle to reach their quotas.
Mr Newby said it was a cruel blow for fishermen who had structured their season around the event and he suggested it could also inflate market prices for lobsters as supply suffered.
"We haven't had one of these sorts of years for quite a few years now, probably 20-odd years," Mr Newby said.
The Department of Fisheries said last week it was looking into whether a marine heatwave in the summer of 2010-11 and elevated sea temperatures in recent years had affected the rock lobster fishery, WA's most lucrative.
Fisheries director-general Stuart Smith said there appeared to be a link between the lower numbers of baby lobsters recorded since 2008 and the unusual oceanographic conditions.
It was also possible the higher water temperatures were changing the mortality rates and migratory habits of lobsters.
"We have been saying environmental factors appear to be the key to what's happening in the rock lobster fishery," Mr Smith said.
"The breeding stock is very healthy, egg production is very healthy . . . yet the settlement of the baby rock lobster coming back is at historical lows."
'Environmental factors appear to be the key to what's happening in the rock lobster fishery.'" *Stuart Smith * Fisheries director-general