The giant mud crab (Scylla serrata) is a beast of a crustacean, capable of reaching 3kg in weight but often caught around the 0.5-1kg range. In Australia, they are distributed in sheltered waters from southern NSW, up through QLD, across the NT and over to Broome, WA.
Giant mud crabs have a short life cycle (3-4 years) and are reproductive machines. Females can carry between 2 – 5 million eggs and migrate up to 95km offshore to release their eggs. The young crabs hatch as tiny planktonic larvae, where they can remain in this stage for several weeks at the mercy of ocean currents. This aspect of their biology gives giant mud crabs substantial capabilities for dispersal.
Their prized meat and high numbers within estuaries make them a highly targeted recreationally and commercially harvested species. In NSW, annual commercial landings are approximately 100-120t and the annual recreational catch is estimated between 30-60t. The main method of capture by both commercial and recreational fishers are crab pots, however rec fishers also use hoop nets or dillies.
Given their exploitation and biology (high reproductive rate and short lives) you would predict giant mud crabs to show a strong response to overfishing and/or recovery to the removal of fishing. An excellent paper recently published by Dr Paul Butcher and colleagues tested this prediction by examining the long-term effects of marine park zoning on giant mud crabs in estuaries of the Solitary Islands Marine Park (SIMP), New South Wales, Australia.
The authors counted the number of giant mud crabs over a 9-year period within three estuaries of the marine park. Clearly this study involved a lot of hard work and generated loads of data. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just present the findings from Wooli estuary, however results were relatively consistent across all estuaries.
During the study zoning regulations were changed which reopened areas to fishing in Wooli that were once previously closed. This allowed the authors to compare the catch rate of crabs between fished versus unfished zones and between areas once previously closed to fishing but subsequently reopened.
As anticipated, Giant Mud Crabs responded positively to the removal of fishing by marine park zoning. In Wooli the average catch rate of crabs in unfished areas (Fig. 1 – red lines) exceeded those in fully fished areas (Fig. 1 – green lines) for all 9 years of sampling in both the early and late seasons. For certain years the difference in catch rates between fished and unfished areas were substantial.
Similarly, as predicted, the unfished area in Wooli that was reopened to fishing showed a clear decline in the catch rate of crabs (Fig. 1 – red triangle line to green triangle line) in early and late season sampling. In comparison, sampling sites in the area left unfished continued to produce high catch rates of crabs (Fig. 1 – red triangle line to red triangle line) in both seasons.
By comparing catch rates between unfished and fished zones and areas reopened to fishing, Butcher and colleagues clearly demonstrate the benefits of ‘no-take’ zones on giant mud crab populations. Their findings indicate that estuarine ‘no-take’ sanctuary zones could potentially provide an effective fisheries management tool for giant mud crab populations.
Protecting giant mud crab populations in ‘no-take’ sanctuary zones is also likely to promote estuarine biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. Giant mud crabs are important scavengers and predators within estuarine habitats, thereby playing a crucial role in estuarine food webs. By protecting undisturbed populations of mud crabs, estuarine ‘no-take zones’ are likely to be maintaining and protecting biodiversity and healthy estuarine ecosystems.
For more information click on the citation below:
Butcher, P. A., Boulton, A. J., Macbeth, W. G., & Malcolm, H. A. (2014). Long-term effects of marine park zoning on giant mud crab Scylla serrata populations in three Australian estuaries. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 508, 163-176.
Rowling, K., A. Hegarty and M. Ives, Eds (2010), Giant Mud Crab, pp 147-150. In Status of Fisheries Resources in NSW 2008/09. Industry & Investment NSW, Cronulla.
Grubert, M, Leslie, M and Bucher, D 2014, Mud Crab Scylla serrata S. Olivacea in M Flood, I Stobutzki, J Andrews, C Ashby, G Begg, R Fletcher, C Gardner, L Georgeson, S Hansen, K Hartmann, P Hone, P Horvat, L Maloney, B McDonald, A Moore, A Roelofs, K Sainsbury, T Saunders, T Smith, C Stewardson, J Stewart & B Wise (eds) 2014, Status of key Australian fish stocks reports 2014, Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, Canberra.