After 17 years researchers from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) based at the University’s Taroona laboratories have developed the solution to a problem that scientists around the globe had been trying to solve for decades.

Led by Associate Professor Greg Smith, the team at the ARC Research Hub for Commercial Development of Rock Lobster Culture Systems is the first in the world to develop scalable methods to rear rock lobsters through their larval phase in a commercial hatchery setting. This provides immense opportunities to establish a sustainable lobster aquaculture industry.

Despite their high value, until now the long and complex lifecycle of rock lobsters (which are also known as spiny lobsters) had made it impossible for the production of large numbers of juvenile lobster required to establish commercial farming.

Depending on the species, rock lobsters can take between six and 24 months to successfully complete their complex larval phase, containing up to 11 stages.

For most of this time the larvae, known as phyllosoma, are very different to mature lobsters, as they are flat and transparent with a shape reminiscent of a spider and require clean oceanic water. 

While scientists had previously been able to rear small numbers of animals from eggs through to the juvenile stage, never before had they managed to do it on a mass scale, an advance that could form the basis for commercial aquaculture.

The breakthrough made by the team at the ARC Research Hub was not the result of a single discovery or invention, but rather a long series of incremental advances as successive challenges were overcome, including the design of the larval-rearing tanks, development of water treatment techniques and creation of specialised diets.

The IMAS research laboratory now houses 10,000 litre tanks, each capable of rearing thousands of juvenile lobsters from eggs.

Associate Professor Smith, who first started working on the lobster aquaculture challenge as an Honours student, said it had been a long but rewarding road.

This world-leading science has significantly reduced disease, shortened larval duration and overcome many long standing density and metamorphosis challenges.

“While further research will optimise the process and allow us to scale-up, 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.”

The technology is particularly advanced with the tropical rock lobster species, Panulirus ornatus, which is a faster growing species than the eastern and southern rock lobster, which are also grown and studied at the IMAS facility.

The Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Brigid Heywood, said the breakthrough has created exciting commercial opportunities for Australian companies interested in establishing rock lobster aquaculture ventures.

“We are now in discussions with potential partners around the opportunity to collaborate with the University to scale-up and commercialise the research.

“Importantly, it also opens the door for other species that can benefit from our advances in hatchery systems design, nutrition and disease control.”

In addition to funding from the Australian Research Council the lobster research has also received long-standing support from the Tasmanian Government and has been assisted by early funding support from the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation.

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