Recently airing in Australia on ABC, The World’s Toughest Jobs shows three British teenagers trying their hand at lobster fishing in Western Australia. With a slice of the pie for a seasoned deckhand on a lobster boat worth up to $1000 a day, is a lucrative salary enough to see the three ‘greenhorns’ (ɡriːnhɔːn/noun/a person who is new to or inexperienced at a particular activity) continue working through rough seas and early morning starts? Or will they head back to their bunks under attack from seasickness and fatigue? I’ve recently spent some time at sea with the lobster fishermen of Western Australia and have encountered both the sustainable fishing practices which has secured MSC certification for the past 15 years and borne witness to the hard work and gritty determination by skippers and crew which offers this career path an indisputable title of one of the World’s Toughest Jobs.
The first thing you are acutely aware of when working on a lobster boat are the early starts. In the summer when a WA sunrise can be as early as 03:30, you are sipping on your first coffee of the day at a time better suited to the nocturnal Bilby. But getting up at this hour has a number of benefits. As you wander through the port town of Fremantle, there is a sense of peace blanketing the usually bustling streets. This is quickly followed by a feeling of energy and excitement as you head towards the lobster boats tied up in Fishing Boat Harbour. With decades of fishing experience under the crews belts, there is still a sense of energy and enthusiasm for their job not often encountered in the desk-driven work culture of today. I look on with a certain amount of jealousy but I put aside the emails for a day as the eagerness to be a part of today’s ‘hunt’ for rock lobster takes hold.
Another eventual perk of the 02:30 alarm clock is the inevitable sunrise from the deck of the lobster boat. The less words I write here the better but lets just say that whatever time that alarm clock goes off, this is surely fantastic compensation from nature for the sleep deprivation.
As the fishing begins and the crew limber up, the first pot comes over the rails and the next element a greenhorn would quickly work out is the sheer weight of a lobster pot. Weighing up to 50kgs, moving these pots around the boat would be difficult even in the calmest of oceans. However, the swells often encountered in the Indian Ocean off WA rarely offer that respite the crew may be looking for. But with the pots coming on to the fishing boat full of lobster, the smiles will continue and the aching legs will soon be forgotten.
These lobster pots are heavy for a reason. with a metal base and wooden panels roughly forming a rectangular shape, they fish well whilst offering other marine critters the opportunity to go about their daily business. Escape hatches allow undersize lobsters to exit the pot with the minimum of fuss and that opportunity is there for other fish, crabs and octopus. Other marine creatures do not have the chance to even get that close to the pot. In certain areas where sea lion interactions in the fishery have been recorded as above average, lobster pots must be fitted with a Sea Lion Exclusion Device (SLED). What looks like a sharp, pointy metal stick is actually expertly designed anti-Sea Lion technology. Sitting in the ‘neck’ of the pot where the lobsters enter, the SLED keeps an inquisitive Sea Lion out of the pot. Since SLEDs became a mandatory feature in the fishery, there have been no recorded Sea Lion mortalities in the fishery. A fantastic win for nature!
The grapple continues to be thrown and the pots keep getting hauled alongside the boat as midday approaches. Fishers in the WA Rock Lobster fishery are allocated a yearly quota which they can fish at a time that suits them whether that is according to market conditions or weather. Quota controls (amongst other management techniques) limit the effort in the fishery and offers both biological and economic stability. The strong management led by the Department of Fisheries has not only led to the fishery having the accolade of the World’s first MSC certified fishery with 15 years of continual certification, it has also led to a recent increase in the quota available to the fishery. With a 6,000 tonne quota available in 2015, the strong smiles and hard work ethic of the skippers and crew of the WA rock lobster fishery are likely to be familiar site along the quayside of WA’s key lobster ports for many years to come.
The World’s Toughest Job? Perhaps. But certainly a job with a promising and sustainable future.
Matt, MSC Australia Fisheries Outreach Officer