Whale threat to cray industry

DANIEL MERCERThe West Australian

WA Fisheries Minister Troy Buswell claims the Federal Government is threatening to all but shut down WA's lucrative rock lobster industry because of a sharp rise in the number of whales tangled in craypot lines.

Likening it to Canberra's dramatic decision to ban cattle exports in 2011, Mr Buswell said the $200 million rock lobster industry was facing a similarly devastating fate unless it resolved the issue.

His remarks, made at a commercial fishing industry function on Thursday night, come as the number of whales entangled in craypot lines this year is already more than five times higher than normal.

According to Mr Buswell, there are usually only three entanglements each year as whales migrate up the west coast to breeding grounds off the Kimberley.

But this number has risen to about 20 since May.

Mr Buswell said he had received a letter from former environment minister Tony Burke, warning that the crayfishing industry would lose its right to export if the problem was not addressed.

"The (former) Federal Minister for the Environment - he's a nice guy, just go ask the cattle industry - has written to your industry and to me and he's said, 'If you don't fix this problem up by 2015, then I will probably remove your right to export'," Mr Buswell said.

"And if you don't think he will, come with me next time I go to the Kimberley - I will get all the cattle producers from the Kimberley to come and talk to you.

"We don't matter to whale lovers and to Federal politicians whose core constituency is the east coast of Australia."

Federal Environment Minister Mark Butler declined to answer questions, instead referring to the letter by Mr Burke in which he reapproved the industry's export licence while noting concerns about entanglements.

Under this approval, the WA Fisheries Department was ordered to demonstrate measures being taken to reduce interaction between the fishery and whales.

Western Rock Lobster Council chairman Basil Lenzo said that though he thought Canberra's warning was less severe than Mr Buswell suggested, the loss of the industry's live export licence would be disastrous.

He said 95 per cent of lobster caught in WA was exported live to countries including China.

Being deprived of the trade would at least halve the value of the product. Mr Lenzo said such an outcome would cost many operators their livelihoods.

He said the industry would work with the Commonwealth to develop solutions before it came to a head.

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