You’re probably thinking, “Wow, look at the size of these guys! Yum!” These West Coast rock lobster (crayfish or ‘’kreef’’ as they are known locally) are approximately 30 years old! The chances of you seeing crayfish this size in the ocean these days are minimal. Rock lobsters grow very slowly and can live to the ripe old age of 50 years or so.
A mysterious life-cycle
Female rock lobsters carry their orange eggs on tiny hairs beneath their tails (this is when they are “in berry”). After 80 to 90 days, the eggs hatch and produce tiny transparent spider-like larvae (naupliosoma). These larvae moult and become phyllosoma larvae with long, hairy legs.
The long-legged phyllosomas drift with the ocean currents for over seven months and molt 11 times! It is thought that some of these larvae are carried by ocean currents all the way to South America and back.
The final larval stage (the puerulus) is a 20mm colourless lobster that swims inshore and finds refuge under a rock or a crevice where it continues to grow to maturity.
It is impossible to farm rock lobster because of this long and complex life-cycle.
Carnivores of the kelp forest
West Coast rock lobsters are an important link in the kelp forest food chain. As carnivores, they tuck into mussels, urchins, starfish, abalone (perlemoen), and even barnacles. Where they occur in masses, they have been known to devour entire populations of sea urchins, for example. However, rock lobsters are also a target for other kelp predators – they are hunted by octopuses, dogsharks, seals and humans.
Managing the West Coast rock lobster fishery
In earlier years, the South African rock lobster fishery would catch about 4 000 tonnes of lobster per year. The fishery has declined dramatically in recent years due to slow growth rates of the lobsters and illegal fishing activities.
Today, the commercial fishery harvests only about 2 000 tonnes of rock lobster, contributing about R200 million to the economy every year.
SASSI status – Orange (think twice)
Over and above this catch, recreational fishers take out about 300 tonnes per year. This is a substantial amount and recreational fishers should make certain that they and others keep to the regulations. This will ensure that the fishery remains sustainable and that they can continue to enjoy this pastime in the future.
Support these regulations
Make sure you know when the season for West Coast rock lobster opens and only fish for them during this time.
Get a permit for West Coast rock lobster from your local post office.
Only four West Coast rock lobster are allowed per person per day. You may not sell your catch and you must transport the lobsters in their whole state.
Only crayfish with a minimum size of 80mm may be removed from the sea.
Respect egg-carrying females
Your may not take out female lobsters that are in berry. Return them to the sea immediately.
For more information visit the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism website.
The impact of red tide
Red tide (decaying phytoplankton blooms) often occurs in areas where large numbers of West Coast rock lobster occur. Red tide causes oxygen levels to drop dramatically and the rock lobsters move inshore, searching for oxygenated water. They are often left stranded by the receding tide, resulting in what is mistakenly referred to as “rock lobster walkout”. In 1997 the largest ever stranding of rock lobster occurred in Elands Bay. An estimated 2 000 tons of rock lobster was lost as a result.
West Coast rock lobster populations have declined a lot in the past few decades, due to over-fishing and poaching
West Coast rock lobsters are carnivores and eat mussels, starfish, and abalone (perlemoen), among other things
When female rock lobsters are carrying eggs with them, they are "in berry"
It is impossible to farm rock lobsters because of their long and complex life-cycle