Special investigation: How WA’s cray industry turned a COVID crisis and trade sanctions into opportunity

Charlotte Elton & Jenne BrammerThe West Australian

There’s already a crowd on the wharf when fisherman James Paratore’s boat pulls in. It’s a sunny Thursday in Coogee, unseasonably hot for April.

But the 35C heat doesn’t daunt the quickly swelling group on the marina.

“Here we are!” one onlooker jokes, pointing at the boat.

“Easter’s arrived.”

Armed with eskies, cooler bags, and boxes, the crowd are after one thing: Western rock lobsters.

The WA lobster industry is world-renowned. But in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and Chinese trade sanctions decimated the export market.

The scene — two-dozen or so eager locals lining up on the dock for a fresh catch — is a timeless one.

But it’s also proof of the determination of an industry that has turned crisis into opportunity.

James Paratore with a couple of large Western Rock Lobsters.
Camera IconJames Paratore with a couple of large Western Rock Lobsters. Credit: Jackson Flindell/The West Australian

Western rock lobsters thrive on the continental shelf just off the WA coast. As saltwater creatures, they’re technically lobsters — but are colloquially known as crayfish.

Fishers catch millions of these “crays” each year, fishing 1000km of coastline from Safety Bay to Geraldton.

The 230 or so boats of WA’s lobster fishing fleet are permitted to bring in 6615 tonnes of lobster per year.

To secure this prized quarry, the fishers work long, arduous days out at sea.

Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-operative chair Basil Lenzo says he usually leaves the wharf about 3am, returning to land about 1pm.

“I still need an alarm clock, I assure you, even after 37 years of fishing,” he laughs.

“But I can survive on four or five hours of sleep.”

Western Rock Lobsters. Lobsters from the boat “Vanessa James” operated by Joe and James Paratore.
Camera IconWestern Rock Lobsters. Lobsters from the boat “Vanessa James” operated by Joe and James Paratore. Credit: Jackson Flindell/The West Australian

By departing early, the fishers avoid rough conditions caused by strong onshore winds.

On Thursday morning, Dr James Paratore and his father Joe left Fremantle Fishing Boat Harbour at 4am.

They fish together three or so days a week, which James juggles with his work as a doctor in a Fremantle practice.

Despite the early start, the father-son duo have little time to rest onboard their boat, the Vanessa James: they have 89 cray pots to pull in, empty, rebait, and throw back — 61/2 hours of exhausting labour.

Like many primary industry workers, fishers have to deal with long hours and punishing physical toil.

But, bobbing alone on the sea 15km south of Rottnest Island, they also contend with another problem: seasickness. Anyone prone to queasiness would do well to stay away, Dr Paratore warns.

“One day a guy who came out with us was so seasick that he just curled up three hours in and stayed that way,” he recalls.

“I don’t think he’ll set foot on a boat any time soon.”

Tracey Goor with her lobsters for Easter.
Camera IconTracey Goor with her lobsters for Easter. Credit: Jackson Flindell/The West Australian


Fishers brave tough conditions to bring home their catch.

But for the punters waiting on the wharf, it’s all worth it.

“Fresh from the sea, you can’t get much better than that,” declares local Tracey Goor, proudly hoisting a newly caught cray.

“That’s for our Good Friday lunch.”

The Western Rock Lobster Fishery is the biggest and most valuable single-species wild-catch fishery in Australia; before COVID-19, it was worth more than half a billion dollars a year.

This success is a far cry from the industry’s humble beginnings.

At the turn of the 20th century, most of the WA lobster catch was — foodies, brace yourselves — canned, boxed, and shipped overseas to fulfil defence contracts.

“Canned lobster, it sounds sacrilegious now, doesn’t it?” jokes Terry Lissiman, the Northern Zone chair of the Western Rock Lobster Council. “But that’s where most of it went back then, to feed soldiers.”

On the cray boat 'Giuseppe', Darren Wright waits for the signal from the Skipper, Basil Lenzo, before dropping the re-baited pot.
Camera IconOn the cray boat 'Giuseppe', Darren Wright waits for the signal from the Skipper, Basil Lenzo, before dropping the re-baited pot. Credit: Simon Santi/WA News

Fuelled by the wave of post-war immigration from Southern Europe, the industry ballooned in size. Between 1950 and 1960 there was a sixfold increase in the value of WA’s production of all types of fisheries — mainly due to the introduction of crayfishing.

Between 1960 and 1970 the value of the fisheries doubled again. In the next decade, it quadrupled.

By 2000, western rock lobsters represented 40 per cent of the total value of WA’s fishing industry, generating millions of dollars in exports each year.

By 2017, the industry was contributing $505 million dollars to the WA economy a year, supporting more than 2400 direct and indirect jobs per annum.

Like many fishers, Mr Lenzo can trace his connection to the post-war wave of immigration that helped the industry flourish. His grandfather arrived in WA in the 1950s.

“There was no work in Sicily after the war, and my grandfather heard that the fishing was pretty good here,” he says.

“The philosophy was just to come over and earn enough money to go back and buy a house.

“But once they got a taste of West Australian life, there was no going back. They ended up bringing the whole family out.”

It’s a familiar story in an industry that is mainly staffed by the descendants of these early pioneers.

Scuba diver and spear fisherman, Derrick Tysoe, underwater holding two crayfish at Albany.
Camera IconScuba diver and spear fisherman, Derrick Tysoe, underwater holding two crayfish at Albany. Credit: Supplied

Like Mr Lenzo, Dr Paratore is a third-generation WA fisher.

“My grandad saw Australia as that place of hope, the land of opportunity,” Mr Paratore says.

“He made a life of it ... and then passed that on to my dad and me.”

Working on a family-run boat has its ups and downs, Dr Paratore admits. He missed his Year 12 leavers’ celebration, and instead spent the week fishing for lobsters.

“That’s one big regret,” he jokes.

“But that historical connection, that family link we can trace back over the generations, that’s great.”

Mr RC Matiske demonstrates how to use a crayfish measure to ensure undersized crays are not taken.
Camera IconMr RC Matiske demonstrates how to use a crayfish measure to ensure undersized crays are not taken. Credit: Supplied


The industry has a proud history.

But, at points last year, its future looked uncertain.

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as much as 95 per cent of the WA lobster catch was shipped live to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

When the virus shuttered the globe, vital supply chains were decimated.

The impact was devastating.

“The industry has really suffered,” Mr Lenzo says.

Fremantle crayfisherman Basil Lenzo in 2014.
Camera IconFremantle crayfisherman Basil Lenzo in 2014. Credit: Sharon Smith/The West Australian

“When COVID-19 hit, no one was eating any lobster because they weren’t allowed to go to restaurants. And because of the no-travelling rule, we lost our supply chain.

“There were no planes to get the product in.”

Chinese consumers had been willing to pay around $90 for a kilogram of lobsters, wholesale.

In the domestic markets, prices generally reach less than $30/kg.

To make matters worse, the beleaguered lobster fishermen were a casualty of a worsening diplomatic stoush between Australia and China.

In early November, China introduced onerous inspection protocols on Australian exports.

The inspections — supposedly designed to test for “trace metals” in the catch — took 36 hours.

Tonnes of live lobsters died on the tarmac, and lobster boats sat idle in the harbour.

As Beijing and Canberra’s relationship has deteriorated, fishers have paid a terrible price.

Clinton Moss.
Camera IconClinton Moss.

Prominent fisherman Clinton Moss said he recently made the “heartbreaking” decision to sell his house at Lancelin, where he had hoped to retire, after racking up $1m in additional debt to increase his catch limit in early 2020.

Mr Moss, a board director of the Western Rock Lobster Council, said he used the house as equity to buy an additional 12 cray quota units at $85,000 each in January 2020.

Those units are now worth $50,000 each.

“My debt levels are relatively small compared to what else is happening in the industry,” Mr Moss said.

“Some others have huge debts, tens of million of dollars, based on a forecast cashflow level that has since disappeared.”

If the rock lobster industry suffers, so too will small WA communities, Mr Lenzo warns.

“You look at Lancelin, you look at Jurien Bay, a lot of those were built on the lobster fishery,” he says.

“A lot of the fishers underpin the coastal communities, the economies in those coastal communities.”

Lobsters from the boat “Vanessa James” operated by Joe and James Paratore.
Camera IconLobsters from the boat “Vanessa James” operated by Joe and James Paratore. Credit: Jackson Flindell/The West Australian


Fishers are suffering. But industry representatives are working tirelessly to turn a crisis into an opportunity.

After years of work, they have finally persuaded the Government to legalise “back-of-boat” sales.

This program allow fishers to sell up to 100 lobsters per trip directly to the public.

“We’d been trying for two years to get direct sales legalised,” Matt Taylor, the CEO of the Western Rock Lobster Council, says.

“But COVID acted as a catalyst for back-of-boat sales. The COVID shutdown enabled that to happen.”

Back-of-boat sales were prohibited in 2010, an unintended casualty of a lobster stock crisis. In 2008, researchers reported troubling signs.

They were catching as few as one larval (baby) lobster per collecting device, compared with a historical average of 100.

“We knew that we had to do something to prevent the stock from collapsing,” Mr Taylor said.

In a dramatic rescue, the industry switched to an “output” model.

Darren Wright on his crayfishing boat at Two Rocks Marina.
Camera IconDarren Wright on his crayfishing boat at Two Rocks Marina. Credit: Simon Santi/WA News

Instead of competing to get the biggest share of the fishery-wide catch over a seven-month season, each boat was allocated its own individual catch quota, which they could bring in any time in the year.

The measures worked: the stock recovered. But it wasn’t without sacrifice.

The number of lobster boats halved — and direct sales were out.

“The Government prohibited direct sales under the quota system,” Mr Taylor says.

“That stopped industry from being able to do what they had traditionally done in terms of servicing the local market.

“So there was a break in the relationship, that personal connection with the community.”

The industry knew right away that the rule was flawed and that the West Australian consumer would lose out.

In 2016, the industry proposed the Local Lobster Program, which allowed fishers to sell 50 lobsters off the back of the boat at specific periods such as Christmas. The council requested that it be extended, but its request was not approved.

Then, COVID-19 hit, and the industry and Government acted quickly to devise a direct-sale system under quota.

In September, fishers started offering direct sales for the first time in years, at 100 sales per landing.

Lisa Cowley (Cannington) fish monger with live crayfish at Fishing Boat Harbour Fremantle.
Camera IconLisa Cowley (Cannington) fish monger with live crayfish at Fishing Boat Harbour Fremantle. Credit: Andrew Ritchie/Community News

Mr Moss said that back-of-boat sales had helped his business survive.

“Back-of-boat sales got me though Christmas,” he said.

“We established a price of $25 per cray, which is about $41/kg.

“We have lost our top end of the margin — I was previously selling crays for $70/kg — but this is about trying to pedal our way out of something and stay afloat. Since November, I have kept pushing it and have sold 2.5 tonnes direct to the public.”

The system is simple: customers ring in advance to secure an order, then drive down to pick up the fresh catch. If they don’t ring, they can still head down to check if there are lobsters left over.

At industry request, the Government increased the landing-sale limit to 200. The take up was incredible, Dr Paratore says.

“Especially during the Christmas period, it’s absolutely exceeded our expectations with the local community,” he says. “The demand has just been overwhelming.”


Since September, 73 boats have sold more than 40 tonnes of lobsters through direct sales — more than 65,000 individual creatures. But back-of-boat sales will never fully meet the demand of the export industry.

“The local community simply cannot absorb 6600 tonnes of lobster a year,” Mr Lissiman says.

“That’s 6.6 million kilos, and it’s basically two crays per kilo. So you’re talking 131/2 million lobsters.”

But for fishers staring down the troubling market situation, every lobster helps — a fact their customers are keenly aware of.

“They (the Paratores) are just a lovely family. And with everything that’s happened the last year, we want to support them, buy local,” customer Ms Goor says.

“I think it’s a great initiative to help get small businesses going,” Deborah Badger, a local picking up lobsters for a friend, says.

Likewise, for the fishers, the real benefit isn’t just a little extra cash. It’s a chance to engage with the community.

“Finally, I can have a chat with my customers,” Dr Paratore enthuses.

People buy lobsters off the boat ‘Vanessa James’.
Camera IconPeople buy lobsters off the boat ‘Vanessa James’. Credit: Jackson Flindell/The West Australian

“They’re getting to know about us and what we do, and where we catch the lobsters, how we catch them, where we catch them from, how we prepare them ... and we get to know about them.”

According to the Freo fisherman, it’s a return to an older way of selling.

“If we go back to my uncles who work in Europe, they have always been able to sell direct to the market, which is their community. And the customers know them by their first name, and vice versa,” he says.

“We’ve become detached from the customer, from the community, because of the inability to sell direct.”

On the wharf, the mood is cheerful. It’s a family affair: Dr Paratore’s wife Ana handles sales, while his mother chats to customers. The boat is named after Dr Paratore and his sister, Vanessa.

Mr Paratore and his father swap tips with customers on how best to prepare the lobsters. Many stop and chat about their plans for the long weekend, and no one in the snaking line seems to mind. One lady brings Mr Paratore an Easter egg.

For an industry that has relied solely on wholesalers for a decade, direct sales have been a game changer — a way for a powerful industry to engage at its roots.

“From a peak-body perspective, the best thing is that community connection, and that’s why we’ve lobbied so hard for years,” Mr Taylor explains. “Now we’ve got young kids, hopping on to boats and holding up lobsters, talking directly with the fishermen, asking them what happened, looking at the pots and looking at the boat.

“It’s absolutely fantastic.”

People line up for lobsters off the boat “Vanessa James” operated by Joe and James Paratore.
Camera IconPeople line up for lobsters off the boat “Vanessa James” operated by Joe and James Paratore. Credit: Jackson Flindell/The West Australian


The direct sales system isn’t perfect, Mr Taylor admits.

There are still kinks that need to be worked out.

“We want fishers to be able to sell the leftover lobsters from back of boat to registered receivers so that they aren’t stuck with them if people who have placed orders don’t arrive,” he says.

But after a year of crises, back-of-boat sales are a ray of light.

Despite onerous working hours and tough market conditions, WA’s fishers are determined to keep going — and the direct sales are a lifeline for many families.

“I went to uni, but saltwater runs in my veins. It’s in my blood.” Mr Lenzo says.

Graham Jordan with Darren Ahearn & David Forsey.
Camera IconGraham Jordan with Darren Ahearn & David Forsey. Credit: Michael Wilson/The West Australian

Dr Paratore feels the same way.

He has the option of working as a doctor full-time — but he wouldn’t give up the cray boat for anything.

The industry and its families have a rich past.

But they’re also looking to the future.

Dr Paratore gives a heartwarming example.

“My little girl Aria, she’s two, and was doing a Superman pose the other day, and I said, ‘You look like Superman!’ And she said, ‘No, I’m a fisherman!’,” he laughs.

“So who knows, she might be on for a life on the water.”