Tails from the islands (1986)
There are five species of rock lobster found in tropical Australian waters, but by far the most abundant is the Ornate Lobster, Panulirus ornatus. This species forms the basis of a dive fishery in both the Torres Strait and in the Gulf of Papua.
Since 1980 researchers from CSIRO and Papua New Guinea”s Department of Primary Industry have been carrying out an extensive research program, tagging the lobsters in order to trace their movements. In the course of the work, a most remarkable picture of animal migration is unfolding. The lobsters undertake a journey that takes them hundreds of kilometres across the Torres Strait to their breeding grounds in the Gulf of Papua. After breeding, they seem to disappear.
Understanding the biology and behaviour of the lobster is vital, so that a sound foundation of knowledge is established on which better management of the industry can be based.
[Text appears: Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal viewers are warned that this film may contain footage of deceased people. Care should be exercised when viewing.]
[Image changes to show two men in a small boat travelling on water]
Narrator: The warm tropical waters of Northern Australia provide an ideal habitat for scuba divers, spear fisherman and underwater photographers. But these two men have a different mission.
[Image changes to show the two men stopping the boat and turning off the motors]
They are, in fact, marine biologists, who are working to better our understanding of one particular animal, the ornate rock lobster.
[Image changes to show the ornate rock lobster, underwater and heading into some rocks. Image then changes back to the two men in the boat putting on their diving equipment and diving into the water]
[Music plays and text appears: TAILS FROM THE ISLANDS]
[Image changes to show the two men trying to net an ornate rock lobster]
In the course of the work of marine biologists from both Australia and Papua New Guinea a remarkable story is unfolding. A story of lobsters that walk hundreds of kilometres and then disappear.
[Image changes to show three men on a sailing canoe on the water]
A story of sailing canoes that have remained unchanged for centuries.
[Image changes to show a modern trawler]
Of modern trawlers involved in a multimillion dollar industry.
[Image changes to show a man cleaning a caught ornate rock lobster]
A fisherman caught between progress and their past.
[Image changes to show a man wading through mangroves, spear fishing and then to a flock of sea birds]
Our story begins on the islands and coral reefs of the Torres Strait.
[Image changes to show an aerial shot of the islands and reefs]
These islands are all that now remain of the land bridge that once existed between Australia and New Guinea, but became submerged with rising sea levels many thousands of years ago.
[Image changes to show a map of Australia, the camera pans up and stops on a highlighted section of water between the very top of Australia and Papua New Guinea]
The Torres Strait lies just South of the Equator, and stretches from the tip of Cape York to the Southern shores of Papua New Guinea.
[Image changes to show a bird feeding at the water’s edge and then moves to crabs on sand] From the North, the Strait receives a massive input of nutrients from Papua New Guinea’s Fly River, the seventh largest river in the world.
These shallow tropical waters, rich in organic material, are ideal conditions for an incredible diversity of marine life. And it’s here that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef reaches its Northern most limit, fanning out across hundreds of square kilometres.
[Image changes to show the coral and sea life of the reef]
This creates a vast network of coral outcrops and reefs, and an ideal habitat for the tropical rock lobster.
[Image changes to show an ornate rock lobster coming out of a rock shelter]
There are five species of rock lobster found in tropical Australian waters, but by far the most abundant is the ornate lobster, Panulirus ornatus.
[Image changes to show the two divers surfacing and getting back into their boat with two nets of lobsters]
Since 1980 researchers from Australia’s CSIRO and Papua New Guinea’s Department of Primary Industry have been carrying out an extensive programme of research.
[Image changes to show the men tagging lobsters and recording information on clipboards]
They’ve been catching lobsters throughout the Torres Strait and tagging them in order to trace their movements.
Male 2: Carapace length is eighty-seven point one.
Male 1: Eighty-seven point one. L244.
Narrator: They record their sex and size, and number each lobster with harmless plastic tags. They then release the animal alive.
[Image changes to show the lobster being released and drifting back down to the bottom. Image then changes back to another lobster being measured, tagged and then released back into the water]
Male 1: What was the antennal tag on the last one?
Male 2: L246, male.
Male 1: Yeah. Carapace length?
Male 2: Seventy-seven point three. Away we go!
Narrator: More than 7,000 lobsters have been tagged, and from the tags that have been returned by fishermen a most remarkable picture of animal migration is emerging.
For example, a lobster that was tagged here was caught here several months later.
[Image of a map indicating where the lobster was released at in the Torres Strait, and then to where it was caught, in waters off the coast of Papua]
One tagged here was later caught here.
[Image changes to show where the next lobster was caught, generally in the same position as the previous one. Released near Torres Strait and caught in waters off the coast of Papua]
And one tagged here was caught way over here.
[Image changes to show where the next lobster was released and then caught. Released in waters off the coast of Papua and caught in waters near Yule Island, on the other side of the Gulf of Papua]
[Image changes to show a lobster under water]
For two or three years the young lobsters live amongst the reefs. They spend the day in dens among the rocks and coral, and move out at night to forage on shellfish and other small animals.
[Image changes to show a diver searching for a lobster amongst the coral]
Although lobsters are abundant on the reefs of the Torres Strait lobsters that are breeding are hardly ever found. The three and four year old lobsters on the reefs are immature, and the tagging studies have shown that before they breed they undertake a journey that takes them hundreds of kilometres across the Torres Strait into the Gulf of Papua.
[Image changes to show the diver netting a lobster]
The mass movements take place around August and September each year. A number of large groups of lobsters appear to leave the reefs at different times, moving through the deeper waters of the great North East Channel and around the Gulf of Papua to the area of Yule Island.
[Image changes back to show the map with grey shaded areas starting at Torres Strait and moving along the Gulf of Papua which represents the movements of the lobsters]
Each December breeding lobsters begin to appear in this comparatively small region around Yule. This, it appears, is the birthplace for future generations.
[Image changes to show the men beaching their sailing canoe and stepping off onto sand and passing over their caught lobsters to other men]
It may take the migrating lobsters many months to reach their breeding grounds, and by the time they do, their shells, which are normally quite clean, are covered with dirt and barnacles, and are showing signs of wear.
Male 1: Damage on the antenna.
Narrator: These animals have been migrating for about six months.
[Camera zooms in on the areas of the lobster as described below]
Their skin is discoloured, and they have tears and scratches around their mouth parts. This one even has a broken antenna.
During their migration they do not moult, and their shells become covered with fouling organisms. This one has small barnacles all along its antennae. The females carry an egg mass that may number over half a million. When the lobsters mate, the male deposits a tar spot, or spermataphore on the underside of the female.
Male 3: This one’s got tar spots, brown eggs.
Narrator: Once she has laid the eggs she fertilises them by scraping the tar spot with her feet. Each brood is carried by the female for about four weeks until the eggs are ready to hatch.
[Microscopic view in on the larvae]
The tiny larvae are released in to the ocean amongst the plankton, where they drift and feed for up to nine months before settling.
Once the eggs have been released at Yule Island the journey of the larvae remains a mystery. The researchers believe that prevailing winds and currents must carry them back to the Torres Strait.
[Image changes to show reserachers looking at samples through a microscope]
As the larvae grow they pass through a series of stages gradually becoming more mobile. Exactly how long they remain in the plankton is uncertain, but it is thought to be between six and nine months. By this time they are at the so called puerulus stage and have begun settling on the coral reefs.
[Image changes to show these stages and then to a lobster in a tank that the researcher is netting]
The ornate lobster differs in many ways from the more familiar rock lobsters found in the Southern waters of Australia. It grows extremely rapidly, reaching a commercial size at about two and a half years of age, almost two years earlier than some of the Southern species.
[Camera zooms in on details of the lobster]
It’s also more colourful, with striking patterns on its legs and carifice.
[Image changes to show a diver looking for a lobster]
However, the most important difference is that the ornate lobster does not enter traps or pots. This makes the lobster fishing industry in the Torres Strait unique in Australia, for it is a dive fishery, one of the few dive fisheries in the world in which skin divers use spears or nets to catch the lobsters.
[Image changes to show a man on a sailing canoe pulling a net full of lobsters from the water]
As the lobsters move between Australia and Papua New Guinea during the course of their lifecycle, the same lobsters are the target of many different fishermen. Fishermen who come from different cultures and different histories. And the story of the lobster fishery in the Torres Strait today is a story of the merging of Western values with traditional ways.
[Image changes to show a native man preparing their boat]
In the Torres Strait the sea has always been an integral part of life.
[Camera pans over a ship wreck]
The treacherous tides and reef strewn waters of the Strait kept early European settlers at bay, and resulted in disaster for many vessels that were tempted by the short cut to Europe.
[Image changes to show Arthur Kebisu holding a club]
Arthur Kebisu: Well, this club here, this was great, great grandfathers, King Kebisu.
Narrator: It was a little more than a hundred years ago that Arthur Kebisu’s great grandfather, the legendary King Kebisu wielded his stone club, or gabagaba, over an empire that spanned much of the Torres Strait, and was feared by sailors.
Arthur Kebisu: He used to fight with this one. He used this one very close, and, you know, when they’re coming along people, like he see people coming and rush up, he come and get the bow and arrow. He shoot with the bow and arrow, kill the people with the bow and arrow, so all the people, rush, coming very close so he can’t do nothing. If people come, you know, close to him on the side of him, he grabbed the gabagaba and then he used this one.
He’s a big man. Everyone coming lay down straight away; hit their head, fall down.
[An organ can be heard and the camera is panning over a small church]
Narrator: But the Torres Strait Islanders have long since laid down their weapons, and with the coming of Western ways their traditional fishing activities have also undergone many changes.
In the early 1900’s the Torres Strait was the centre of the lucrative Australian pearling industry. Pearling luggers packed the harbour at Thursday Island, and they relied on the Torres Strait Islanders, as well as the Japanese, to act as divers and crews.
[Camera pans over gravestones featuring Japanese text and then zooms in on a pearl oyster being opened]
But pearl oysters are no longer abundant, and it’s left to a few remaining pearlers, like Shigeru Yamashita, to carry on the tradition. It’s no longer economic to dive for pearls, so they must now be cultured on pearl rafts such as these.
[Camera pans over the pearl rafts]
But the decline of the pearl fishery has coincided with an increase in demand for lobsters. And for the fishermen of the Torres Strait, the old wooden boats, with their hand driven air pumps have been replaced by fast aluminium dinghies.
[Image changes to show the Islanders in a boat travelling on the water and one man dives in]
There are lobster fishermen on all the inhabited islands of the Torres Strait. Most of them, like Samson, work in a small team using only a bare minimum of equipment. They rely on an intimate knowledge of the sea, it’s creatures, and the changing seasons. Knowledge handed down from generation to generation by islanders like Uncle Elder.
[Images changes to show Uncle Elder]
Uncle Elder: So they go in, you can feel they’re soft, and when that… June, July, after that southeast blow you’ll find the shell wash up on the beach here. They’ve been shedding their skin and that’s how you find they’re soft enough. And they stay there for two or three weeks while their shell gets harder before they move.
[Image changes back to show divers catching the lobsters]
Narrator: Most Torres Strait divers work close to their home island. They catch the young lobsters which have not yet left the reefs on their migration to their breeding grounds.
Back on land, the tail is skilfully removed, cleaned and then snap frozen.
[Image changes to show a man separating the tail from the body of the lobster and throwing them in different directions]
Other island fishermen operate from freezer boats, which allow them to work the remote reefs more easily.
[Camera pans over the freezer boat and its crew]
Some of the freezer boats, like this one, are converted pearling luggers. For several weeks at a time it is a base for six or more dinghies, and their crew, and it only returns to Thursday Island to unload the catch and re-fuel.
[Image changes to show two men taking off in a dinghy]
The dinghies leave the freezer boat with a crew of two. The diver stands on the bow directing it to likely fishing spots.
[Image changes to show a man jumping in to the water and heading to a rocky spot to find a lobster]
The lobsters shelter under lumps of coral called bommies and it is these bommies the diver is looking for as the boat moves across the shallow reef top. While the diver searches for lobsters the dinghy circles, waiting to take the catch.
Fishing in this way, moving from bommie to bommie across the reef, the divers can cover a large area.
[Image changes to show the two men in the dinghy returning to the freezer boat]
After fishing the divers return to the freezer boat for their catch to be cleaned, weighed and frozen. Depending on conditions, experienced divers can spear over 150 lobsters in a single day. Each team is paid according to the weight of their catch. The Torres Strait divers catch about 200 tonnes of lobsters each year, with a total value of about $3 million.
[Image changes to show the lobster tails being packed]
The bulk of the catch is processed and packed at Thursday Island. Most of these tails are destined for the tables of restaurants in mainland Australia and the United States. For the people of the Torres Strait the lobster industry has had obvious economic benefits, as the Chairman of Yam Island, Getano Lui Junior, explains.
[Image changes to show Getano Lui Junior]
Getano Lui: Well the lobster fishery to the Torres Strait Islanders has made a substantial contribution to the economy of not only Yam Islanders but for most of the islands in the Torres Strait. Certainly a turnaround in creating job opportunities for islanders and to participate in their own private enterprise.
[Image has changed back to a diver searching for lobsters underwater]
Narrator: By the time they are four years old those lobsters that have managed to avoid being caught are ready for their migration.
Around August they move out in to the great North East Channel and around to their breeding grounds in the Gulf of Papua.
[Image changes back to show the map with grey shaded areas starting at Torres Strait and moving along the Gulf of Papua which represents the movements of the lobsters]
After leaving the shallow reefs they’re safe from the divers of Torres Strait, but the deeper waters of the channel hold a threat of a quite different kind.
During their long journey to Yule Island they must thread their way past a gauntlet of fishing boats which are capable of catching more lobsters in a single night than the best divers can catch in a month.
[Image changes to show the fishing boats on the water. Image then changes to show a man on board the boat charting a course on a map]
These are the large modern prawn trawlers which work the Torres Strait all the way from Thursday Island to Yule Island. Boats which can be worth well over half a million dollars, and are equipped with radar and satellite navigation. They scoop up everything from the sea bottom, prawns, fish and lobsters. Small numbers of lobsters are caught by prawn trawlers throughout the year. But it is during the migration season, when the lobsters are moving in large groups, that they are especially vulnerable to the nets of the trawlers.
[Image changes to show the nets being hauled in from the water and emptied to reveal all the different fish they have caught]
Because of this, both Australia and Papua New Guinea have, since 1984, imposed a ban on trawling for lobsters during their migration.
Birds, dolphins and sharks often follow the trawlers, scavenging on the unsaleable items that are thrown overboard.
[Image changes to show the dolphins and sharks in the water following the fishing trawler]
The lobsters that survive their 500 kilometre walk to their breeding grounds arrive at Yule Island to be met by the local fishermen.
[Image changes to traditional islander fishermen working from dugout canoes]
The lobster fishery at Yule Island is a traditional fishery which has been operating in the same way for hundreds of years.
Each lobster is caught by hand, and the day’s catch is carried alive to the markets. A good fishermen at Yule Island might catch 12 lobsters in a day.
[Image changes to show nets being dropped from sailing canoes and then to a man catching a lobster underwater and then bringing it to the surface to put into a net]
Here, the village people make use of the whole lobster. While the tails are sold to provide much needed income, the main part of the body is stuffed with leaves and cooked to provide food for the whole family.
[Image changes to show a woman preparing the lobster to cook]
During the height of the lobster season the people of the villages fish the reefs by night, as well as by day.
[Image changes to fishermen with lanterns on their dugout canoes working at night]
But the season only lasts a few months. By the end of April the reefs are empty. Why the lobsters disappear and where they go to is a mystery. It has been suggested that the combined stress of emigrating and breeding is enough to result in the death of most of the lobsters. The lobsters at Yule Island certainly appear to be in poorer condition than lobsters elsewhere. But whether there are mass mortalities, or whether the lobsters simply move away in to deeper water has yet to be established.
And so the research continues.
[Image changes to show people recording information about the lobsters]
Understanding the biology and behaviour of the lobster is vital so that a sound foundation of knowledge is established, on which better management of the industry can be based. It’s an industry that spans two nations and involves fishermen who have different cultures and beliefs.
[Image changes to show men in two different boats having a conversation]
Male 1: You been catching much, Joe?
Male 4: No, not much today.
Male 1: Where you been finding them mostly?
Male 4: Just around the edge here.
Male 1: Yeah, yeah. What size?
Male 4: Just only, you know…
[Man holds up one of the lobsters that he has caught to show the men the size of it]
Male 1: Not real big, hey?
Male 4: No.
Male 1: You know, you got a couple of tags the other day didn’t you? Male 4: Oh yeah, I’ve got a few tags at home.
Male 1: Can we come around and pick them up?
Male 4: Oh yeah, yeah.
In the various stages of their complex migration, right up to their mysterious disappearance, the lobsters run the risk of being caught. Over fishing at any stage of their lifecycle could result in the collapse of the whole industry.
[Music plays and credits appear: With thanks to: Australian Fisheries Service. Dept. of Primary Industry, Australia. Fisheries Division. Dept. of Primary Industry, Papua New Guinea. Northern Fisheries Research Centre. Old. Dept. of Primary Industry, Cairns. With thanks to: Peter Channells. Garry Christopher. Richard Ralph. Kevin Ranger and the fishermen of Torres Strait and Yule Island. Scientific direction Dr. Bruce Phillips, Dr. Jasper Trendall. Technical advice Stewart Bell. Sound recording Robert Kerton. Animation John Taylor. Cinematography and direction Roger Seccombe A.C.S. Production Nick Alexander. A CSIRO film © 1986 CSIRO Australia]