Torres Strait Beche-de-mer Fishery

Map showing the area of the Torres Strait Bêche-de-mer Fishery (2006)

The Torres Strait Bêche-de-mer Fishery is an important commercial fishery to Torres Strait Islanders. The fishery was based primarily on sandfish (Holothuria scabra) in the past, however harvesting of this species has been discontinued. Until January 2003 fishing focused on surf redfish (Actinopyga mauritiana), black teatfish (Holothuria whitmaei), white teatfish (Holothuria fuscogilva) and to a lesser extent, a couple of lower value species. In January the quota for surf redfish and black teatfish was set at zero tonnes for both species, effectively closing the fishery for these two species.

Fishing for bêche-de-mer in Torres Strait is mainly by free diving from dinghies crewed by 2-3 fishers or by hand collection along reefs at low tide. Once collected, the animal is gutted, graded, cleaned, boiled, smoked and dried. This is a labour intensive process usually carried out on processing vessels or at shore based facilities.

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Condition of the fishery

Bêche-de-mer are especially susceptible to overfishing because they are large, easily seen and collected and do not require sophisticated fishing techniques. As a result the Torres Strait Bêche-de-mer Fishery is subject to a suite of input and output controls aimed at preventing overfishing but also allowing Islanders to benefit from the use of bêche-de-mer stocks.

Sandfish has been subject to excessive levels of fishing effort during the early 1990′s and 1995 in particular. It is a high value species occurring in relatively shallow waters and as a result is vulnerable to over-harvesting. Following concerns of serious resource depletion and overexploitation of sandfish stocks on Warrior Reef, four fishery independent surveys were commissioned to assess the level of reduction in sandfish abundance in 1995/1996, 1998, 2000 and 2002.

The collection of sandfish, which was harvested primarily for export, has been prohibited since early 1998 following recommendations from CSIRO researchers undertaking the surveys that the remaining stock on Warrior Reef was approximately 80% less than in November 1995. In 1995, the status of sandfish stocks were considered overexploited, therefore the subsequent reduction indicated a serious depletion.

The survey also led to the introduction of severe management measures. Further fishing pressure on sandfish may have led to a total collapse of the stock and a continued closure was recognised as the only feasible strategy for rehabilitation.

A third survey of the sandfish population on Warrior Reef was undertaken by CSIRO in January 2000. The work revealed that sandfish stocks are still severely depleted with only a very slight recovery having taken place since the extremely low abundance recorded in 1998. The most recent (2002) survey found that there was a modest recovery of the stock from 2000 levels, primarily on the southern parts of the reef, however overall the abundance was still only about 40 percent of the 1995 level. Based on the surveys there was no recommendation for the PZJA to open the sandfish to exploitation.

Based on the 2002 survey undertaken by CSIRO that also took in the eastern reefs of Torres Strait the PZJA was advised that the black teatfish and surf redfish had experienced significant declines in abundance. Based on this advice the PZJA closed the fishery for these species by setting zero TACs for them.

Under the previous management and licensing structure, Islanders from 12 communities harvested bêche-de-mer for commercial purposes, along with one non-Islander licence holder. Following arrangements that placed the fishery under Commonwealth Law 178 Traditional Inhabitant vessels are presently licensed for the fishery in addition to the one non-islander licence holder.

Management objectives:

Objectives adopted for the Torres Strait Bêche-de-mer Fishery are:

  • to provide for the sustainable use of all bêche-de-mer stocks in Torres Strait;
  • develop bêche-de-mer stocks for the benefit of Australian Traditional Inhabitants (as defined by the Torres Strait Treaty); and
  • develop an appropriate long term management strategy for sandfish.

Experience elsewhere in the Pacific indicates recovery of overfished sea cucumber stocks is a lengthy process taking several years.

Management arrangements

In the Torres Strait Bêche-de-mer Fishery, participation is limited to Traditional Inhabitants with the exception of one long-term non-Islander operator who was active in the fishery prior to the introduction of licence limitation in the fishery in late 1995.

Management regulations

Regulations implemented in the fishery include:

  • limiting the method of taking bêche-de-mer to either hand or hand held non-mechanical implement;
  • a ban on the use of hookah or SCUBA gear;
  • a bag limit of 3 sea cucumber per person or 6 cucumber per dinghy applies to traditional fishing in the area of the fishery.
  • limiting dinghies to less than 7 metres in length;
  • limiting the activities of the one non-Islander licensed operator to primarily involve the participation of Islanders in those activities;
  • a competitive Total Allowable Catch (TAC) (measured in wet weight gutted) at 30 June 2003 for the following species:
Fish species Tonnes
White teatfish 15
Prickly redfish 20
Other 80
Total 115
Minimum size limits for mm
Sandfish 180
Lollyfish 150
Black teatfish 250
White teatfish 320
Elephant’s trunk fish 240
Prickly redfish 300
Deepwater redfish 120
Surf redfish 220
Black fish 220
Curry fish 270