Safeguarding Tasmanian abalone with GPS

One Australian scientist’s idea could change how the world manages its fishing quota.

When it’s put to Dr Craig Mundy, Abalone Biologist at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, that he’s monitoring abalone divers the way his marine biologist colleagues track sharks, he doesn’t demur.

“Yes, my inspiration came from animal movement research. I figured that if we could track a shark, we should be able to track an abalone boat,” he admits. “There’s a similarity of approach in that I’m looking at how habitat is used, where hunting takes place.”

Dr Mundy is the man primarily responsible for researching the world’s largest wild abalone fishery. While fisheries research has been going on for over a century, and satellite tracking of industrial trawlers has become common over the last two decades, Dr Mundy is at the forefront of a move to apply the kind of global positioning system (GPS) technology, that is having a profound impact in other fields, to the business of monitoring and managing Tasmania’s abalone stocks, which generate A$100 million of annual revenue for Australia’s smallest state.

“VMS [vessel monitoring system] has been in place in many industrial fisheries for 15 years. There’s a satellite tag that updates the location of the boat every hour. That’s fine for ensuring that boats are fishing where and when they should be, but it doesn’t provide you with much data and is expensive to purchase and maintain. And diving for abalone is very different from trawling for tuna. An average dive might only take 45 minutes, so an hourly update isn’t much use, even if a small abalone boat had the power to run the equipment, which most don’t.”

After years of trials, Dr Mundy’s passive GPS logger was put on Tasmania’s abalone boats and a depth recorder was put on the vests of all its abalone divers on 1 February 2012. The equipment records at 10-second intervals and provides time, latitude, longitude and depth.

“You might previously have had CPUE (catch per unit of effort) data relating to a 50 kilometre long grid cell. What could happen is that stocks would be declining overall but because fishermen would just move to another part of the grid cell and still get their daily quota the decline wouldn’t become evident until the entire area was close to fished out. The new GPS-based system gives us much higher resolution spatial data. We know exactly where – to within five metres – the divers are going and how deep they worked. We’ve just got the first lot of data back, a million records providing very precise information on 3000 hours of fishing activities and, for example, that’s revealed there’s been a slight downturn in the stocks on Tasmania’s east coast.”

While a handful of other fisheries researchers have also been experimenting with GPS tracking, Dr Mundy’s system is currently the most advanced. “There are a few others experimenting with it – a lobster researcher from Chile’s Juan Fernández Islands, a scallop fishery in Argentina – but the two things I’ve done that no-one else has are that I’ve developed a framework for extracting information from the data and I’ve gotten an entire industry to adopt this. We’re working in partnership with the divers and there’s no way we could have afforded to gather this quantity of data any other way.”

Dr Mundy notes there’s been very little resistance from Tasmania’s abalone divers, most of whom would be aware of the fate of their counterparts in places such as California, Mexico, Japan and South Africa, who’ve found their industry either wiped out or much contracted.

“If you compare Korea’s and Tasmania’s abalone industries over the last 30 years, Korea has gone from producing 5000 tonnes of abalone annually to 300 tonnes. Tasmania used to produce 5000 tonnes too. As you’d expect of a mature fishery after 30 years, the catch has declined but it’s still producing around 2500 tonnes. I suspect that what has happened with other abalone fisheries is the spatial depletion I referred to before – fishermen moving around to different areas to get their quota and no-one realising that overfishing was taking place until it was too late. If they had the appropriate information on the appropriate scale, they may have been able to put in place practical harvest management strategies, as we are doing in Tasmania.”

Dr Mundy hopes that other fisheries, especially those of developing nations, can avoid a similar fate to Korea by implementing his system. “I’ve gotten a lot of interest when addressing conferences around the world and I’m already providing assistance to the New Zealand abalone industry, which wants to implement this. I think this is something that we should be applying throughout the Pacific Ocean. The equipment is cheap, can be used in the smallest of boats, in the most remote of areas and, once you’ve got the fishermen on board, you collect a lot of high-resolution data at a very low cost.”