Quota cuts saved Australia’s spanner crab fishery, now live exports could resume to China

Quota cuts saved Australia’s spanner crab fishery, now live exports could resume to China

Australia’s largest spanner crab company hopes to resume sending live crabs to China within weeks, as work continues to ease tensions with the nation’s largest trading partner. 

Key points:

  • Bright red spanner crabs are prized in Asia
  • Trade to China stalled during the pandemic
  • Australia’s biggest spanner crab company hopes to resume exports

Named after their spanner-shaped claws, spanner crabs — or frog crabs as they are known in some parts of the world — are prized for their sweet meat and bright red shell.

They can walk forward and backward, compared to most other crab species, which can only move sideways.

Spanner crabs were never officially on the list of Chinese trade bans on Australian products, but exports stalled after the start of the pandemic.

Andre Gorissen purchased Fraser Isle Spanner Crabs, trading internationally as Aussie Red Crabs, in September last year.

“We’ve been reconnecting with our client base that was previously there,” he said.

“We’ve actually found that the demand is very strong, it’s been a matter of those political tensions.”

Spanner crabs are red, cooked or uncooked.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Mr Gorissen said attempts to restart trade with China did not go smoothly last year when three air shipments of live crabs in a row were inexplicably held up by customs.

He said that resulted in higher mortality rates and shook business confidence.

But after the first face-to-face meeting between Australia and China’s trade ministers since 2019, and with increased flights, Mr Gorissen was feeling hopeful.

Live spanner crabs are flown to southern markets and destinations overseas.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

“We had a Chinese delegation here with Austrade just last week, so things are starting to look a lot better now that most of their cities are now opened back up again after their COVID lockdowns,” he said.

“I think we’re making some headway, so fingers crossed.”

Lyn and Les Apps were pioneers in Australia’s spanner crab industry.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Industry pioneers

Mr Gorissen’s mentors Lyn and Les Apps still own the quota for the company which they founded close to 30 years ago, building a factory at Mooloolaba.

The couple backed Queensland Fisheries’ decision to slash commercial quotas from 1,631 tonnes to 847 tonnes in 2019, to save the fishery from collapse.

Sweet spanner crab meat is also extracted and vacuum-packed for sale.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

“It was something [we] really supported because we believed long-term it was what needed to be done,” Mr Apps said.

“Values of quota have actually increased to offset the reduction in quota and the fishery is now very healthy in our opinion.”

A departmental spokesperson said fishers had not reached their quota for 10 years before the cut and had only harvested 58 per cent of their allowable catch.

A spanner crab catch, fresh from the ocean.(Supplied: Queensland Fisheries)

Unique species

“Spanner crabs are unique in that they’re red when you catch them and then they stay red when you cook them, so they are quite a delicacy in China,” Queensland Fisheries director of management Sian Breen said.

Australia has the world’s largest spanner crab fishery, extending from K’Gari (Fraser Island) to northern New South Wales.

They are caught using dillies, flat mesh nets that entangle spanner crab claws.

“They’re quite a unique species across the world, there’s only a couple of other fisheries globally,” Ms Breen said.

Fisheries Queensland technician Shannon White adds information to the annual spanner crab survey.(Supplied: Qld Department of Agriculture and Fisheries)

Fisheries Queensland has begun its annual survey of spanner crab stocks, sending scientists out to measure, size, and sex commercial catches.

“We feel that the measures we took a few years ago have made sure that the stocks are sustainable,” Ms Breen said.

“They’ve really turned the corner and they seem to be on the up now, they’re currently classified as sustainable and catch rates are looking good for this year.”


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