The Tasmanian Abalone Fishery

A Personal History


A J Harrison

3. Forming the Foundation

Having had a long, and at times turbulent time managing the scallop fishery, the Division knew how to carry out the Director of Agriculture’s instruction. The first step was to gather together anyone who might have something to contribute. An informal group of senior fisheries inspectors, some fishermen and processors and a few divers gathered at the Morrison Street Office (now Isobar) and traded information and canvassed ideas. From this inauspicious beginning took root a culture of co-operative management that has been the hallmark of the fishery.

Several factors are responsible for this spirit of co-operation. Firstly the divers were almost all new to fishing and had little of the ‘them and us’ culture of many traditional fishers. Notwithstanding this fresh spirit several influential leaders from the existing fishing industry like Louis Shoobridge and Bern Cuthbertson were influential in urging the Minister to be pro-active in managing the new fishery. Secondly the processors were dealing with a new product that required careful handling to realise its full value. For some years they were heavily dependent on Government research (through CSIRO) to solve their problems. Thirdly the divers had the unique ability to see the whole stock and many were fascinated by the problem of how to husband this resource that even then seemed valuable. Fourthly, all parties began on an equal footing.

To effectively manage we needed biological and fishery information on the Tasmanian abalone as soon as possible. Although I was very new I knew enough from my earlier research on scallops, and summer schools at CSIRO in Cronulla, to know the kind of information we needed and what should be the priorities. I was well aware that one rarely had the chance to work on a fishery before there had been any significant fishing and I was not going to muff it through lack of work.

I arranged for all the inspectors to measure as many abalone as possible. Ray Taylor spent a week on the Trade Winds and brought back a lot of length frequencies and a description of the commercial operation. I visited as many divers as I could find. Quite soon I had a rough idea of the part of the stock that was being harvested and how the fishery operated. Now I needed a more scientific image and took our research vessel Penghana to Maria Island. From my discussions it seemed likely that this was the place to start the investigations. It was easy to get to and work and looked as though the growth rates would be about average for that part of the stock then being fished. More importantly my informants believed the outside of the Island had never been fished. My divers found that in Beaching Bay there was no indication of previous fishing and a large collection of shells from there produced a reliable estimate of the rate of natural mortality — an essential component of every stock assessment and usually very difficult to get. A check of the stocks along the Hopgrounds shore suggested that this was the place for the first tagging program. Tagging here produced the first estimates of growth rate and allowed a size at first capture that would maximise yield per recruit to be calculated. Fortunately this showed that the current legal size was close enough. It would be a few years before we were able to find out enough about the reproduction of the shellfish to be comfortable that this legal size provided adequate protection for the spawning biomass.

Maria Island was the site of most of our research until about 1975. At Hopgrounds and nearby Long Point we conducted depletion experiments with a team of commercial divers and measured growth rates. We were able to generate results at Hopgrounds but there were so many abalone at Long point that even with intensive fishing we could not reduce the numbers to measure catchablility and mortality coefficients. Later Trevor Dix repeated the experiments and got another set of estimates. John Grant spent a lot of time collecting gonads and sectioning them to ascertain the size at first maturity and spawning seasons.

The first meeting of the new Advisory Group unanimously agreed that the fishery needed regulating and the quicker the better. All divers needed to be identified, hence licensed, and an increase in the minimum size to six inches would give added insurance until more information allowed more sophisticated management to be employed. Already some in the industry were worried that shucking at sea resulted in poor quality in summer and made the policing of the size limit difficult. After a long discussion it was decided that the new regulations would require all abalone to be landed alive and in the shell.

The Minister announced the new rules on 23 December 1964 and by the end of February 1965 twenty one divers paid the 10 fee to participate in the fishery. First at the Division’s Morrison Street office on 2 February were Ken Petith and Dennis Porter and Fred Jones and Tom Spencer issued their licences. Within a few days amongst those licensed were Gavin Graham, Dave Mawbey, Len Croft, Ross Parker, Curly Robbins and Les Tokoragi. At this time the Tasmanian fishing industry was overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon in stark contrast to other States where men of Greek and Italian heritage made up influential sectors of the industry. However the list of Tasmanian abalone divers soon had a distinctly cosmopolitan appearance; Bruno and Nerio Butinar, John Valentich, Colin Chinook, Robert Cerny, Pavel Frerk were all licensed in 1965.

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