Coronavirus hits Torres Strait’s traditional fishers as rock lobster market hits rock bottom | Australia news

January and February are usually the busiest time of year for longtime Torres Strait fisherman Boggo Billy.

Ordinarily, just before dawn or dusk, he would navigate out in a dinghy from his home on Warraber, a 37-hectare island between the top of Cape York and the southern coast of Papua New Guinea, which is home to around 250 people.

The reefs around the island teem with life: bêche-de-mer (sea cucumbers), dugongs, crabs and tropical rock lobsters that are usually worth around $70 a kilogram from middlemen supplying fish markets in China.

Billy’s local knowledge, inherited from generations before him, means he knows when “the good tides” will roll in and what they mean for the crustaceans, which leaves him perfectly poised to capitalise on the boom brought on by lunar new year.

But this year the boom was a bust. Live crayfish prices plummeted after the outbreak of coronavirus in December. China cancelled many lunar new year celebrations and banned the import of live seafood.

On the Torres Strait, rock lobsters are the region’s second-most valuable fishery and a vital source of income for people in small island communities.

Now, Billy says, “you’ve got to try and get many more crayfish to make $1,000”.

Rather than increasing the size of their catch, which could cause problems in the heavily regulated industry, most fishermen have chosen to stay ashore.

“Most of the fishermen have stopped going out now, because it seems like you can’t make any money because of what’s going on,” he says.

Fisherman and crayfish farmer James Billy outside his home on Warraber in the Torres Strait. Photograph: Jack Banister/The Guardian

James Billy, another Warraber fisherman and a distant relation of Boggo Billy, sells his own catch plus fish he buys from other islanders to a Chinese buyer with a factory in Cairns.

James Billy says prices for live crayfish have plummeted to $25 per kilogram, which means that after spending on fuel and equipment, it’s difficult to turn a profit.

As well as freediving in the shallower waters, James Billy also hookah dives. The method uses surface-supplied air to keep fishermen in deeper water for longer and is preferred by traditional fishers who hold traditional inhabitant business licenses.

A day of hookah diving for lobster, James estimates, would mean a catch of 40kg to 50kg of crayfish and a profit of around $2,000 dollars in a strong market.

For those who just freedive, the timing of the virus is especially bad because January and February are the months when the crayfish are most bountiful in shallow waters.

“This is usually a time to load up and sell lots of crayfish,” James Billy says.

Dinghies moored to the jetty off the coast of Warraber

Dinghies moored to the jetty at Warraber. Local fishermen stopped going out to catch crayfish when export prices plummeted. Photograph: Jack Banister/The Guardian

Boggo and James Billy both have day jobs which mean they can support their families despite the crash. But they say the huge loss of income from fisheries, and the uncertainty about when the market might return are a major cause of stress for the community.

The situation isn’t helped by the already inflated prices families have to pay for food on Warraber.

“We’re really worried. We’ve got families to support, kids down mainland for school,” Billy says. “We’ll cross our fingers.”

Industry administrators and fishermen met to consider changes to the sea cucumber fishery as possible stop-gap measures, including lifting restrictions on other fisheries and allowable restrictions.

James Billy says some fishermen on Warraber, and its sister island, Poruma, have already transitioned to catching lollyfish, a variety of sea cucumber that is abundant around both islands.

He says it sells for about $10 per kilogram, a low price, but one that has still helped some locals to “keep their heads above water”.

But the fact sea cucumbers are easy to catch makes them particularly prone to overfishing. That means regulations can only be loosened to a point to help those who are struggling – a free-for-all isn’t possible because it would jeopardise the long-term sustainability of different sea cucumber species.

The latest shock to the local industry comes on the back of other hits as the impacts of global heating begin to be felt acutely in these waters.

“In 2017, we had that [coral] bleaching. It affected not so much the price, but the crayfish. We, across the Torres Strait, we were all catching little crayfish,” James Billy says. “It was warm water from the surface like six metres down.”

James Billy says there were also problems with the health of the crayfish, with many dying after being caught.

The latest crash, Boggo Billy says, is frustrating, but he’s got his fingers crossed that the market will be “back on” soon, so “everybody will be smiling again”.

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