Blue Swimmer Crab (2020)
Date Published: June 2021
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Australia has ten stocks of Blue Swimmer Crab across WA, Qld, NSW and SA. Nine of those stocks are sustainable with one stock in WA classified as depleted.
Stock Status Overview
|Western Australia||Cockburn Sound||Depleted||Catch, CPUE, fishery-independent recruitment index, egg production index|
|Western Australia||Western Australia North Coast||Sustainable||Catch, CPUE|
|Western Australia||Western Australia South-West Coast||Sustainable||Catch, CPUE|
|Western Australia||Shark Bay||Sustainable||
Catch, CPUE, fishery-independent recruitment and breeding stock abundance
|Western Australia||Peel-Harvey Estuary||Sustainable||Catch, CPUE|
Blue Swimmer Crab is distributed in Australia from the south coast of Western Australia, north to the Northern Territory, across Queensland, down the east coast and to the New South Wales–Victoria border. They are also found in the warmer waters of the South Australian gulfs [Kailola et al. 1993].
In Western Australia, Blue Swimmer Crab is fished in numerous fisheries across five regions. The stock delineation between these regions is unknown [Chaplin et al. 2001; Chaplin et al. 2008]. Stock structure on the east coast of Australia is uncertain, involving overlapping stocks or a semi-continuous stock [Chaplin et al. 2001]. Due to the geographic separation between the major fishing grounds for Blue Swimmer Crab in New South Wales and Queensland, they are managed as two separate biological stocks. In South Australia, research has identified three separate biological stocks of Blue Swimmer Crab—in Spencer Gulf, Gulf St Vincent and on the coastline west of the Eyre Peninsula [Bryars and Adams 1999, Dixon and Hooper 2011].
Here, assessment of stock status is presented at the biological stock level—North-Eastern Australia (Queensland), South-Eastern Australia (New South Wales), Spencer Gulf, Gulf St Vincent and West coast (South Australia), and at the management unit level—Shark Bay, Cockburn Sound, Peel-Harvey Estuary, Western Australian North Coast and Western Australian South-West Coast (Western Australia).
Historically, variations in recruitment of Blue Swimmer Crabs in the Cockburn Sound (Crab) Managed Fishery and recreational fishery have been driven by environmental conditions, which have caused large fluctuations in stock abundance and annual commercial catch [de Lestang et al. 2010]. A shift by commercial fishers from using gill nets to traps in the mid-1990s resulted in a marked increase in annual crab landings. Following a series of high catches (250–350 t) in the late-1990s, the catch declined significantly [Johnston et al. 2011a,b]. Fishery-independent surveys indicated that low recruitment was a result of high fishing pressure combined with poor environmental conditions, which reduced the spawning stock to low levels and required the closure of the fishery in December 2006 [de Lestang et al. 2010; Johnston et al. 2011a,b]. Fishery-independent trawl surveys indicated that the strength of recruitment and the spawning stock biomass did not improve sufficiently to reopen the fishery until December 2009. The commercial fishing season for 2010 was restricted to 3.5 months and minimum size limits were increased from 130 mm carapace width (CW) to 140 mm to ensure that the catch level would enable continued recovery of the spawning stock biomass. At that time, the fishery was assessed to be recovering.
Based on improving abundances of juveniles (aged 0+ years) and increased egg production levels in 2010, 2011 and 2012, commercial management restrictions were eased. This easing included lengthening the fishing season to six months (December–June) and decreasing the minimum size to the pre-closure size limit of 130 mm CW, while retaining a 20 per cent reduction in trap numbers. However, catches remained low at around 50 t, with catch rates declining from 1.1 kg per trap-lift in 2010 to 0.5 kg per trap-lift in 2012. In 2013, despite a slight increase in catch to 62 t, fishery-independent trawl surveys indicated low recruitment, similar to the low levels preceding the closure in 2006. Although egg production (based on mature female abundance) in 2012 was within the historical range, a low proportion of berried females was observed during commercial monitoring and fishery-independent trawl surveys between September 2012 and January 2013, potentially explaining the low recruitment observed in 2013. The role of the 2010–11 marine heatwave in the recruitment decline is not clear; some evidence suggests that crabs in Cockburn Sound were in poor nutritional condition during this period, possibly due to a lack of prey. The commercial fishery was closed early in the 2013–14 season as a result of very low stock biomass and low egg production and the majority of the recreational fishery was closed soon after. A harvest strategy has been developed for the Cockburn Sound Crab Fishery using juvenile and egg production indices as performance indicators, with associated limit reference levels [Johnston et al. 2020a].
The juvenile index from 2014 to 2018 remained very low (0.03–0.11 juveniles/100 m2 trawled) and despite a small increase, the 2019 index of 0.04 juveniles/100 m2 remains substantially below the limit reference level of 0.4 juveniles/100 m2 trawled, indicating that recruitment is at unacceptable levels [Johnston et al, 2020a].
Since the improvement of the egg production index in 2016, this index has declined from 2017 to 2019, with the 2019 value of 5.4 ×106 eggs/traplift being less than half the limit reference value of 12 x 106 eggs/traplift. This suggests that breeding stock levels remained low, and the fishery remained closed for the 2019–20 season [Johnston et al. 2020a]. Catch rates undertaken aboard a leased commercial vessel during the closure did not improve significantly in 2019.
Potential reasons for the stock decline include reduced primary productivity, changes in water temperature, increased predation, a low abundance of mature females and/or low proportion of berried females, and the negative effects of density-dependent growth [Johnston et al. 2020a]. The more recent declines in abundance and lack of recovery are believed to be substantially attributable to environmental changes, rather than fishing, with the commercial and recreational fishery closed for the last six years.
The above evidence indicates that the spawning stock biomass is likely to be depleted and that recruitment is likely to be impaired. Fisheries management has responded appropriately to indications of reduced abundance and environmental changes, and the above evidence indicates that current fishing mortality is constrained by management to a level that should allow the stock to recover from its recruitment impaired state. However, measurable improvements are yet to be detected.
On the basis of the evidence provided above, the Cockburn Sound (Crab) Managed Fishery (Western Australia) management unit is classified as an environmentally limited depleted stock.
The gradual conversion from targeting Blue Swimmer Crabs using gillnets to using hourglass traps in the Peel-Harvey Estuary Crab Fishery (Area 2 of the West Coast Estuarine Managed Fishery) between the mid-1990s and early-2000s resulted in an increase in annual crab catches. Commercial catch levels have generally ranged between 50 and 100 t annually. A recreational boat-based survey conducted in Western Australia in 2017/18 estimated the total state-wide recreational catch of Blue Swimmer Crabs to be approximately 61.1 t, of which 90 per cent (by number) were caught in waters within the Metro Zone (which includes the Swan and Canning Rivers and Peel-Harvey Estuary crab fisheries) (Ryan et al. 2019).
Stock assessments for the Peel-Harvey Estuary Crab fishery (PHECF) use a weight-of-evidence approach wherein information from fishery-independent surveys, commercial monitoring and environmental data are used to determine stock status [Johnston et al. 2020a]. The PHECF is managed under a formal harvest strategy, using annual standardised catch rates (catch per unit effort, CPUE ) and total catch for each fishing season (November–August) [Johnston et al. 2014, 2015, 2020a]. Since conversion from nets to traps in 2000–01, annual standardised commercial catch rates have fluctuated between 0.8 and 1.4 kg per trap-lift, but have generally remained above 1 kg per trap-lift. In 2012–13, a catch of 107 t and a standardised CPUE of 1.4 kg per trap-lift were the highest on record. The PHECF gained Marine Stewardship Council certification in 2016, being the first fishery to have attained such certification for both commercial and recreational sectors [Johnston et al. 2015]. The commercial catch and effort from the Peel-Harvey Estuary for the 2018–19 fishing season (November–August) was 66.5 t, a decrease of 30 t from the 2017–18 season. The standardised catch rate of 0.92 kg/traplift for the 2018–19 fishing season was a decline from 1.4 kg/traplift in 2017–18, but remains above the harvest strategy threshold of 0.7 kg/traplift. The above evidence indicates that the biomass of this stock is unlikely to be depleted and that recruitment is unlikely to be impaired.
The breeding stock in this region has additional protection because the size at maturity (86–98 mm CW) is well below the legal minimum size (LMS) (127–130 mm carapace width, CW). Spawning occurs near the mouth and outside the estuary following flushing of crabs from the estuary during winter, providing the spawning stock with further spatial protection from fishing. The above evidence indicates that current fishing pressure is unlikely to cause the stock to become recruitment impaired.
On the basis of the evidence provided above, the Peel-Harvey Estuary Crab Fishery (Area 2 of West Coast Estuarine Managed Fishery) (Western Australia) management unit is classified as a sustainable stock.
The Shark Bay Crab Managed Fishery for Blue Swimmer Crab expanded rapidly between 2000 and 2010. In 2010, it was Australia’s highest producing Blue Swimmer Crab fishery, with landings of 828 tonnes (t), collectively caught by the dedicated crab trap sector and as by-product by the prawn and scallop trawl sector. This stock also supports a small (around ~5 t) but important recreational fishery. In late 2011, the crab stock in Shark Bay was found to be at historically low levels (with commercial and survey catch rates below limit reference levels) as a combined result of fishing, recruitment failure and increased natural mortality of the adult stock. This was attributed to the combination of the effects of an extreme marine heat wave event during the summer of 2010–11, two significant flooding events and high fishing pressure in the years prior [Chandrapavan et al. 2019].
Commercial fishing for Blue Swimmer Crabs in Shark Bay ceased in April 2012 on a voluntary, industry-agreed basis to facilitate stock rebuilding, at which point it was classified as being environmentally limited. During the closure, intensive monitoring of the resource began, using a combination of trawl and trap-based fishery-independent surveys. The surveys provide indices of spawning stock and recruitment levels which are assessed periodically. During 2013, indices of spawning stock increased from 200 kg per square nautical mile (below the limit reference of 300) to 1 789, and recruitment levels improved from 991 kg per square nautical mile (with a limit reference level of 700) to 2 197 (kg per square nautical mile). These improved indices indicated a recovering stock and provided some confidence for the resumption of limited commercial fishing for Blue Swimmer Crabs in Shark Bay [Chandrapavan et al. 2018].
In 2015, the fishery transitioned to a fully managed status under a new management plan, which includes a system of individual transferable quotas that applies across all three commercial sectors in Shark Bay. A formal harvest strategy has also now been developed for the fishery, where quota setting is now based on three primary performance indicators of peak spawning (during June), peak recruitment (during February) and residual legal biomass levels (during November), while secondary indicators include quota achievement and standardised commercial trap catch rates [DPIRD, 2020].
Since 2013, annual stock assessments have indicated a steady stock recovery under catch levels of up to 529 t. In 2019, the TACC was maintained at 550 t and the fishery was deemed fully recovered. However the mid-season review of the TACC during April 2020 indicated a significantly large recruitment event had occurred where the spawning and recruitment levels were above the limit, and legal biomass and commercial catch rates were well above the target reference levels and above the historical range. This resulted in an increase of the TACC to 650 t for the remainder of the 2019–20 season, the maximum set for this fishery.
On the basis of the evidence provided above, the Shark Bay Crab Managed Fishery (Western Australia) management unit is classified as a sustainable stock.
Western Australia North Coast
The Western Australia North Coast management unit is made up of two dedicated crab trap fisheries—the Pilbara Crab Managed Fishery (PCMF), and the Exmouth Gulf Developing Crab Fishery (EGDCF)—and crab taken as by-product in certain prawn trawl fisheries—the Exmouth Gulf Prawn Managed Fishery (EGPMF), Onslow Prawn Managed Fishery (OPMF) and Nickol Bay Prawn Managed Fishery (NBPMF). Total catch for all these fisheries in 2019 was 28.3 t, a decline from the catch of 55.5 t reported in 2017. Negligible Blue Swimmer Crab catches have been reported in recent years from the EGCDF and the OPMF, with both fisheries catching the species intermittently.
The annual standardised catch rate from the PCMF provides an index of abundance that can be used to assess fishery performance. After significant increases in 2013 (1.9 kg/traplift), and 2014 (1.5 kg/traplift), the annual catch rate declined to 0.6–1.0 kg/traplift during 2015–18. However, the fishery recorded an annual standardised catch rate of 1.5 kg/traplift in 2019, representing an 88% increase from 2018. This catch rate is well above the preliminary harvest strategy threshold of 0.46 kg/traplift, indicating there should be adequate egg production under typical environmental conditions (Johnston et al., 2020b). The above evidence indicates that the biomass in this management unit is unlikely to be depleted and that current levels of fishing mortality are unlikely to cause the management unit to become recruitment impaired.
On the basis of the evidence provided above, the Western Australia North Coast management unit is classified as a sustainable stock.
Western Australia South-West Coast
The Western Australia South-West coast management unit is made up of a number of dedicated minor crab trap and gillnet fisheries: the Warnbro Sound Crab Managed Fishery (WSCMF), the Swan and Canning Rivers Crab Fishery (SCRCF – a part of the West Coast Estuarine Managed Fishery), the Mandurah to Bunbury Developing Crab Fishery (MBDCF), the South Coast Estuarine Managed Fishery (SCEMF), as well as crab taken as by-product in other net and trawl fisheries. Total catch for these fisheries in 2019 was 40.7 t, which is an increase from 21.3 t reported in 2017. This increase was primarily a result of increased catch for the SCEMF (10.5 t in 2017 to 19 t in 2019) and the SCRCF (1 t in 2017 to 9.5 t in 2019).
Following some of the highest Blue Swimmer Crab catches on record for the SCEMF between 2013 and 2016, possibly resulting from above average water temperatures in 2011–12 and 2012–13 having a positive impact on recruitment of these southern stocks, the catch decreased in 2017 and 2018 before increasing again in 2019. Stock abundance of Blue Swimmer Crabs in the SCEMF appears to be heavily influenced by the strength of the warm, southward flowing Leeuwin Current. Crabs recruit to these waters during strong current years which result in warmer water temperatures, with subsequent catch and effort highly variable in response to these pulses of abundance. Following an unusually high rainfall event at the beginning of 2017 that severely impacted commercial operations, catches in 2019 have returned to historical levels in the SCRCF (annual catch around 6–10 t). The standardised catch rate for the SCRCF in 2019 was well above the harvest strategy threshold of 6.2 kg 100 m net−1. Although catch declined slightly in 2019 for the MBDCF, standardised catch rates for Area 1 of this fishery (Comet Bay) were within the target range, with Area 2 (Mandurah-Bunbury) not fished. Standardised catch rates in the WSCMF were above the threshold level of 0.8kg/traplift.
Catch rates for all Blue Swimmer Crab on the South-West Coast remain above threshold levels, indicating that stocks are currently fished at sustainable levels. The above evidence indicates that the biomass in this management unit is unlikely to be depleted and recruitment is likely to be impaired. The above evidence also indicates that current levels of fishing mortality are unlikely to cause the stock to become recruitment impaired.
On the basis of the evidence provided above, the Western Australia South-West Coast management unit is classified as a sustainable stock.
Blue Swimmer Crab Biology [de Lestang et al. 2003a,b, Sumpton et al. 2003]
|Species||Longevity / Maximum Size||Maturity (50 per cent)|
|Blue Swimmer Crab||3–4 years, ~ 200 mm CW||Varies among locations, 6–14 months, 86–110 mm CW|
Blue Swimmer Crab Spatial Distribution
|Traps and Pots|
|Coastal, Estuary and River Set Nets|
|Blue Swimmer Crab Trap|
|Protection of egg-bearing females|
|Total allowable catch|
|General recreational licence or fishing boat licence (not species specific)|
|Limited entry (licensing)|
|Protection of egg-bearing females|
|Charter||< 0.5 t|
|Recreational||63 t (2017/18)|
Western Australia – Recreational (catch) Boat-based recreational catch in 2017/18 [Ryan et al. 2019]. Does not include scoop netting and other methods of recreational fishing.
Queensland – Indigenous (management methods) for more information see https://www.daf.qld.gov.au/business-priorities/fisheries/traditional-fishing
New South Wales – Indigenous (Management Methods) https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/fishing/aboriginal-fishing
New South Wales – Recreational (Catch) Recreational catch estimate of 26.7 t is based on (i) an estimated recreational catch of 50 637 Blue Swimmer Crabs by NSW resident recreational anglers in 2013–14 [West et al. 2015]; and (ii) an assumed mean weight of kept Blue Swimmer Crabs of 0.530 kg/crab. This remains the most reliable estimate of annual recreational catch because the 2017-18 survey estimate of 14.2 t estimated using a mean weight of 0.225 kg/ crab [Murphy et al. 2020] applies only to 1-3 year recreational licence holders.
Commercial catch of Blue Swimmer Crab - note confidential catch not shown.
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