Western Australia’s diverse coastline – with its long stretches of sandy beaches and turquoise water teeming with marine life – is a natural wonder linking the state with its people.
The Indian Ocean is home to a vast, thriving ecosystem which means, as Aussies, we’re lucky enough to enjoy seafood that comes straight from the ocean’s depths on our dining tables. While incredible king prawns, barramundi and oysters are among some of the coast’s favourites – when it comes to cultural and economic impact, there’s one infamous crustacean that stands out among the rest: the Western Rock Lobster.
Cervantes: The Fishing Town That Could
While many people undoubtedly enjoy the taste of a perfectly tender, mouthwatering lobster, they know hardly anything about the industry that’s behind their favourite seafood.
Lobster has been a cornerstone of Western Australia’s identity since the 1950s with so many people relying on the abundance of this crustacean for their livelihood. So much so, that communities have been forged, towns built, and families established around the fishing of lobster.
Along the Coral Coast, lobsters are more than just a delicious delicacy, they play a key role in the economy. Lobster fishing is a half-a-billion-dollar industry that supports thousands of jobs from wholesalers to fishermen, and fish markets to restaurants. In the 50s, these crustaceans were a lifeline for the early settlers of WA (especially Cervantes) who escaped poverty and migrated to the coast in search of a better life. Back then, Cervantes wasn’t exactly the popular tourist destination that it is today – it was a hard-working fishing town that offered new immigrants an opportunity. Lobster was more than just a great catch, it was their sustenance and income.
Western Rock Lobster
True jewels of the ocean, Western Rock Lobsters (scientifically known as Panulirus Cygnus) belong to the spiny lobster family and are often referred to as “crayfish.” Despite the varying names, there is actually no difference between a Western Rock Lobster and a crayfish. Western Rock Lobster is the name of the species, and crayfish is a term that the Australian industry uses.
Around eight different varieties of rock lobster call WA’s clear, unpolluted waters home. However, crayfish are by far the most abundant and can be found anywhere between Perth and Geraldton. These crustaceans are protected by a strong carapace and can live for over 20 years, with some weighing up to 5.5 kilograms. They take three to four years to reach a legal size of about 76mm carapace length, which is the minimum requirement when fishing for them. While Western Rock Lobsters are found naturally in the wild, they are also successfully and sustainably farmed so that they can be consumed year-round.
Western Rock Lobster Fishery
The Western Rock Lobster fishery is the most valued single-species fishery in Australia and represents about twenty per cent (or one-fifth) of total Australian fisheries.
This fishery was one of the first to be certified as ecologically sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council in 2000, and now (over two decades later), is internationally acknowledged as one of the best-managed and most sustainable fisheries in the entire world. It’s also the only fishery to have been re-certified four times – which is no small feat.
Extending 1000km from Shark Bay in the North to Cape Leeuwin in the South – the Western Rock Lobster fishery regularly employs about 250 vessels to catch the popular rock lobster using pots and traps. For a long time, fishermen would use lines or nets to catch the crayfish, but this method has been mostly abandoned – not only because it’s difficult to retrieve the lobster from those types of traps, but because thousands of pounds of gear would be left in the water every day due to its weight. Now, the Western Rock Lobster fishery has become a potting industry.
Currently, the only allowable method for capture is a pot (trap) made of wood slats or cane. Fishermen set up these baited pots in shallow waters near migration paths, and leave them submerged overnight. In the morning, the captured lobsters (of legal size and appropriate reproductive status) are retrieved and brought to a processing plant on shore, where they are shipped live, overseas. Majority (95%) of the crayfish caught are exported to markets in China, but of course, some are used for domestic consumption. The latter are placed in holding tanks until they are consumed locally.
Not only does the Western Rock Lobster fishery support responsible catch methods, but it’s also under a quota management system, where commercial fishers are limited to a total catch allocation for the season. Each fisherman requires a license and must follow strict size requirements (nothing heavier than 3kg) with catch limits of 8 rock lobsters per day. With that being said, the rock lobster season operates 12 months of the year, from 15th January to 14th January the following year. Western Rock Lobster fishery understands the importance of putting systems in place to ensure there is a supply of this great-tasting seafood for generations to come.
Life Cycle of a Western Rock Lobster
Lobsters mate in late winter/spring whereby the male deposits a packet of sperm (black spot) on the underside of the female’s belly. It’s known in the industry as a tarspot. It remains there until the female is ready to spawn her eggs.
The female uses her legs to scratch the tarspot which releases sperm while she releases her eggs simultaneously. The eggs are fertilised and attached to the fine hairs underneath the female’s tail. Females carrying eggs are known as ‘berried’. The eggs hatch within 4 to 8 weeks to form larvae.
The larvae drift to the top of the ocean for the next 9 to 11 months, where they then hatch once grown to approx 35mm long. Very few larvae survive this journey.
The final stages of larvae moult and completely change their appearance to a small, transparent rock lobster known as pueruli. The puerulis swim long distances to settle on the onshore reefs where they develop their red colour. Again many pueruli do not survive this journey.
The pueruli that survive this long journey continually moult and grow to become juveniles. The juveniles feed off the reefs for the next three to four years.
At the end of the juvenile phase, the lobsters undergo a moult in late spring where they change from their deep red colour to a white/pale pink. They remain this colour until changing back to their traditional red colour at the following moult in 2 to 3 months.
This white migration phase is typically from November to late January when large numbers of pale pink (whites) lobsters, recently moulted, migrate from reefs to deep water. During this migration, the lobsters are highly exposed to fishing and large catches are taken by fishermen.
Adult and non-migrating lobsters are known as ‘reds’ and form the catch between February to November when the “whites” start again.
Western Rock Lobsters fall prey to several fish species, however, the majority are eaten by large fish and octopus. Octopus have become problematic for commercial fishermen as they enter their lobster pots and feed off the fishermen’s catch.
Fortunately, crayfish can regrow all their legs and antennae lost. It’s their defence mechanism against predators who succeed only in taking their limbs while leaving the remaining part of them to survive another day.
Indian Ocean Rock Lobster
With a wealth of knowledge about the sea and its conditions, in 2008 the Thompson Family created Indian Ocean Rock Lobster – a processing facility on the beach in Cervantes. It’s from here our family produced Premium Grade Seafood, including the export of live lobsters, and a range of seafood products to buyers around the world.
There was overwhelming interest from the public for tours of the Indian Ocean Rock Lobster factory, so our family decided to expand the business once more and include a tourism operation now famously known as “Lobster Shack”.
Lobster Shack provides a relaxed, yet exciting environment for the public to experience all elements of the beloved Western Rock Lobster. Located on the beachfront, our restaurant offers the complete lobster experience from lobster pot to cooking pot! That’s because we’re not just any restaurant – we offer charter boat tours, pot-pulling tours, and a factory tour where you can learn about the different stages of cray fishing, from catching to export!
Taste Test at Lobster Shack
Lobster is a delight that deserves to be enjoyed. At Lobster Shack, we pride ourselves on serving the freshest and most delicious seafood found off the coral coast. The way we treat our lobsters from the moment they enter our care when fishing, until the time they’re served to customers, is a testament to the quality of our lobster meat.
Come try our delicious Western Rock Lobster the way you were meant to – at Lobster Shack in Cervantes, where it all began.