From delicate seas to delicacies: fishing for southern rock lobster in the Southern Ocean takes patience, stamina and, for fisherman Paul Regnier, No Fear…
It is just after 4am and the water in Robe’s Lake Butler Marina is like glass – but the weather can be deceiving in the shielded wharf. Out in the Southern Ocean, once you are past the rocks and the iconic stone obelisk, with its white and red stripes, you find yourself at the mercy of the elements.
It is fitting then, that Paul Regnier called his boat No Fear. If the experienced fisherman has ever felt any hesitation untying the 16m-long vessel from its moorings, No Fear must have served as a final confidence boost to help him brave whatever may await on the open ocean.
“We’re pretty open to the elements here,” Regnier says. “When you’re about 15 to 20 (nautical) miles out at sea, you lose sight of land, which is a bit eerie if the weather is rough. But we’re used to it now. We use satellite navigation. We know how to come home.”
Regnier has been fishing southern rock lobsters just off Robe, 340km southeast of Adelaide, for 33 years. Born in the nearby town of Kingston, the 52-year-old was still a teenager when he followed in his father Ian’s footsteps and got his first job as a cray fisherman. Since then, he has hit the open ocean nearly every day during the lobster season.
Today, he has 80 pots he pulls out of the water to check for crays, before moving some pots to new grounds and dropping all of them again to leave them overnight.
The difference between a good and bad day, at an average $75 to $80 for a kilogram of lobster, is significant. On a good day, Regnier may bring in up to 250kg. On a bad day, a mere 30kg.
“You can still make money at 30kg but anything below that is getting a bit tough,” he says.
Commercial rock lobster fishing happens in South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria and Tasmania. Up to 1246 tonnes of cray can be caught from the southern zone, which takes in a stretch of coastline from the Murray Mouth to western Victoria. The northern zone runs from the Murray Mouth to the West Australian border.
The lobster industry has become a profitable export market for South Australia since China developed a taste for the delicacy. About 95 per cent of the catch is sent to China, creating more than 1300 jobs and generating in excess of $240 million worth of economic activity to the state.
It is a rough start for a delicacy that ends up in the world’s most expensive restaurants. After 33 years, Regnier’s hands, pierced many times by the sharp spikes of the lobsters, no longer feel the pain. “Now I’m over 50, (the work) takes its toll,” he says. “Your body sort of feels it a bit more now. It’s getting a little bit harder to get out of bed and go fishing.”
But Regnier says he wouldn’t swap his job for anything, so much so that, one day, he hopes his sons Jed, 22, or Egan, 21, will take over the business.
“I love the freedom of it,” he says. “You’re your own boss. You can take days off, if you like. There is no pressure. And I just love the fresh air out on the ocean. I really do like it.”
The lobsters keep things interesting too. While it’s easy to identify a good lobster – deep red colouring and perfect dinner-plate size, at 1-1.5kg – it’s not always easy to catch them. They seem to stop moving during large tides, while large swells encourage movement. Then there are predators, like seals, octopus, sharks and Conger eels, that may get to them before they reach the cray pots. At times in November, they will drop their shells and, while growing new ones, stay away from predators. Lobsters are “complex creatures,” says Regnier: “They’re sort of their own boss. You think you’ve got them worked out. You go out one day and you do really well and the next day you go out and get half the amount and wonder, ‘Why does this happen?’. If they don’t want to move, they won’t move.
“But catching 250 crays every day, it would get a bit boring.”
Robe, an idyllic Limestone Coast town famous for its crayfish, is a popular summer tourist destination with a long history. One of the oldest towns in South Australia, it was the state’s second-busiest international port in the 1850s, first shipping out wool from the rich hinterlands and then bringing in Chinese people rushing to the gold fields.
When rival ports and a shrinking pastoral sector caused the collapse of Robe by the 1890s, it was the fishing and tourism industries that revived the picturesque coastal town. By 1944, what kicked off with a few small wooden boats had grown rapidly into a sustainable industry.
Regnier understands the importance of maintaining the industry and looking after local lobster stocks. He says southern rock lobsters have a unique taste that comes from colder waters and the clean and pristine environment they grow up in.
“There are a lot of people who are interested in our industry, which is good because it is a good industry,” he says. “I mean, it generates a lot of money. I know the tourism industry is huge but if the fish weren’t here, I know, Robe would die. That’s how important it is. That’s why we have to look after the industry and make it sustainable, which we are.”
SOUTHERN ROCK LOBSTER FISHERMAN
“You think you’ve got them worked out. You go out one day and you do really well and the next day you go out and get half the amount and wonder, ‘Why does this happen?’.”
WORDS – Nadja Fleet