For millennia, rock lobsters (often erroneously known as crayfish) were among the marine foods collected and eaten by indigenous Australians in Tasmania and on the mainland. When European explorers and colonists arrived, they soon discovered that the spiny crustaceans were abundant in Australian waters. In 1793, the quartermaster from French explorer d’Entrecasteaux’s expedition described the capture of hundreds of rock lobsters in the waters of Recherche Bay.
As well as noting the French lobster catch, the Tasmanian Seafood Industry’s publication Oral history of the Tasmanian seafood industry quotes excerpts from the diary of an early resident of Hobart, navy chaplain Robert Knopwood. On Tuesday 21 May 1805, he wrote:
‘…at 11 I went out afishing and caught a very large Crayfish, the first that was taken in this Colony which I gave to His Honor the Lt. Gov. on my return home to dinner late in the eve rain and wind’.
Of course, the so-called crayfish was not a crayfish at all, but a rock lobster. Crayfish species, which include marron, yabbies and Tasmania’s giant crayfish, are found in fresh water. Seagoing species of this crustacean family include lobsters (found only in the northern hemisphere) and our own rock lobsters. In Australia, there are several species. Among them are the Southern Rock Lobster, found in the cooler waters off Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia; the Western Rock Lobster of Western Australia; the Eastern Rock Lobster of New South Wales; and the Tropical Rock Lobster of northeastern Australia.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, rock lobsters were not the luxury food they are today. In 1829, the Hobart Town Courier reported that:
Oysters and other shell-fish, with which the beds of the Derwent abound, are now in full season. Oysters are sold ready opened in the shops at 9d. a dozen. Cray-fish at from 6d to 1s each according to size.
The rock lobster fishery proceeded without regulation through the early and mid 19th century until the Crayfish Act 1885 was passed by the Tasmanian parliament. For the first time, catch limits were imposed. The Act also prohibited the taking of females carrying eggs. Further regulation, designed to prevent over-fishing, followed in all Australian states. Today, the fishery is regulated by what is known as the Individual Transferable Quota system, which allocates individual fishers a proportion of the overall quota for the season. It is considered one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world.
Crayfish (rock lobster) canning began in Western Australia as early as the 1930s and canned crayfish was among the foods supplied to American troops during World War II. This marked the beginning of an export industry for the canned product. Domestically, prices remained low. In the 1950s, it wasn’t uncommon for my dad to arrive home on a Friday night with “a couple of crays”. It seems that, back then, just as rabbits were generally sold in pairs, crays always came in couples. At that time the price of rock lobster was around 3/6d a pound (roughly equivalent to 77 cents a kilo). Even in the 1970s, lobster dishes regularly featured on restaurant menus at prices not much higher than those for a good steak.
From the 1980s, the export of live lobsters began to increase, with China among the growing markets. As demand began to exceed supply, prices rose. By 2014, the price of lobster in Australia had risen to around $115 per kilogram, a $30 per kilo increase on the previous year’s prices, making the average cost of a lobster between $75 and $85. The signing of a free trade agreement with China in 2015 saw prices go even higher, hitting $140 a kilo in December 2019.
Then, disaster struck the industry. Diplomatic tensions led China to hike duties on several Australian products and to ban the import of Australian seafood. The price of lobster in local markets dropped dramatically as producers sought out other export markets. At the time of writing (December 2022) it seems the election of a new Labor government may lead to a thawing of diplomatic relations with China and a relaxation of the trade bans. While good for the rock lobster industry, it’s likely that the succulent seafood will once again be firmly on the luxury list for Aussie diners.