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Lobster farming set for lift-off

Edition_177_Associate Professor Greg Smith ... ready for next phase

UTAS researchers say they have achieved the holy grail of aquaculture – the breeding of southern rock lobsters – and are ready to proceed to commercialisation.

"We have demonstrated our hatchery process at our research facility in Taroona in mass-rearing tanks, which can annually produce tens of thousands of juveniles suitable for stocking commercial grow-out facilities," Associate Professor Greg Smith said at a media announcement in October.

Such a hatchery process was once considered impossible because of the lobster's complex, multi-stage life cycle.

The Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies team that has worked on the project for 17 years is now looking to partner with Australian companies to undertake commercial trials.

They believe the project has huge export potential and will reshape the world's lobster trade.

Professor Smith told the ABC: "It's very exciting ... because it's basically one of the holy grails of aquaculture, because it is such a long and difficult larval cycle.

"Since the 1980s, people have been able to rear very small numbers of rock lobsters, but it's been on the scale of being able to do it in a beaker; and using various things like antibiotics.

"The breakthroughs that we've made are around water treatments, we don't use any antibiotics at all."

Scientists have struggled over decades to unravel the lobster's complex 11-stage cycle that culminates in a metamorphosis that has posed the biggest challenge.

"During that stage, they go from essentially a two-dimensional animal into something that actually looks like a lobster," Professor Smith said.

"It takes about 10 or 15 minutes and it completely changes the look of the animal.

"If anything's not right, that's when you see the problem."

Professor Smith said the world-leading science project had significantly reduced disease, shortened larval stage duration, and overcome long-standing density and metamorphosis challenges in raising lobsters.

A significant breakthrough occurred in 2014 when the laboratory team progressed from producing a handful of lobsters a year to a harvest of 5,000.

UTAS has worked on the project with Malaysian company Nexus Aquasciences.

The University of Auckland and the University of the Sunshine Coast have also been involved.

The research was part funded by the Australian Research Council.

UTAS is the exclusive licensee for the technology in Australia and Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), Professor Brigid Heywood, said the breakthrough "opens the door for other species that can benefit from our advances in hatchery systems design, nutrition and disease control."

Professor Smith said: "We are the only team on the planet with the technological know-how to do this. What we need now are the commercial partners to take it forward."

Farming or "growing out" could take place on artificial reefs, in caged areas of the sea or in purpose-built on-shore facilities.

South Africans have been "growing out" small lobsters in fenced-off inlets for generations.

Similarly, lobsters are farmed commercially in Vietnam and Indonesia with young lobsters taken from the sea and "grown out" in cages.

Such systems fail to ease pressure on wild populations.

The newly developed science opens up the prospect of re-stocking existing lobster fisheries.

The Hobart researchers have worked with three species: Tasmania's prized, red-shelled southern rock lobster; green-shelled eastern rock lobster; and a tropical variety.

Senior Research Fellow Quinn Fitzgibbon said: "It's got great commercial and environmental potential. This ... can have a big effect on the lobster fisheries going forward."

Aquaculture might not produce markedly cheaper lobsters, but it will make it easier to meet growing world demand in a sustainable way.

Image courtesy of The Mercury

3 November 2016, Tasmania's Stories Edition 177

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