A Giant Among Giants

Thu, 16 Apr 2009 13:20:00 +1000

Andrew Levings, a professional fisherman from Portland with a recently conferred PhD as well as an inspiring degree of commonsense, is the epitome of Deakin University’s desire to do meaningful research that makes a difference.

The painstaking project that led to his doctorate has not just saved an industry, but a species – the giant crab Pseuodocarcinus gigas, a deep sea creature that can grow up to 17.5 kilograms.

It has also earned him the glowing respect of his fishing industry colleagues, his community, his supervisor, Professor Brad Mitchell from the Warrnambool Campus and examiners.

“This dissertation represents a comprehensive examination of the biology of Pseudocarcinus gigas; perhaps one of the more extensive studies of any crab species. It summarizes far-reaching and lengthy research efforts to explore many different aspects of the life history of the crab and its interactions with its environment, integrating current research performed by the doctoral candidate with that of earlier researchers,” wrote one examiner.

“I particularly applaud the author for his efforts of engaging commercial fishers with research gathering,” said another. “I am in awe of the large volume of data and its analyses and the author deserves hearty congratulations”

“This is a remarkable thesis in many respects. The candidate develops a very holistic account of Pseudocarcinus gigas, covering a wide range of aspects of both [the] animal and its environment, in marked contrast to the usual restricted scope of most PhD theses. The development of the tagging process alone is an impressive innovation. Further, this is a thesis that could only have been achieved by someone with his extensive experience and contacts in the pot fishing industry. Most studies of fisheries try to reconstruct what happened in the initial phase of exploitation of virgin stocks, whereas this study collected data – with the help of fishers records – from the beginning.”

Professor Mitchell’s views are no less flattering.

“What Andrew has done is just phenomenal for himself, for Deakin, for the fishing industry and for a creature about which little had been known,” Professor Mitchell said.

“He has run a business, raised a family, brought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of research funds into the University to carry out this massive project and often in the face of a lot of what to others might be insurmountable odds.

“What has now been established is a sustainable, boutique industry and that is because of the work Andrew did that led to the setting of minimum legal size regulations early in the life of the fishery.”

“That’s a great rap,” says Dr Levings dryly.

“It was tough going at times. I get a lot of satisfaction out of it now … it is a very happy time for me.”

Aged 57, Andrew Levings' life is steeped in the fishing industry. He operates out of the same port as his grandfather in South West Victoria.

“One of the first things my mother taught me was to sew a net, not knit and sew, but to sew a net,” he adds. “I am a life member of the Portland Professional Fishermen’s Association.”

Like so many fishermen who when out to sea have plenty of time to think about things more deeply than the rest of us, he has a lot of poetry in his soul.

Ask him what he plans to do post receiving his PhD and the reply almost scans: “I will just keep working across the corporate, government and education sectors. A lot of the work I do now is almost like being a translator across disciplines and between groups … getting them to find ways to intelligently manage our future.”

The inspiration for Andrew’s thesis, and the report he wrote on the creation of a sustainable industry, goes back to the discovery of commercial quantities of the giant crab in the deep waters off the Australian coast nearly two decades ago.

As he watched the catches come in, Andrew and other fishermen realised that there was a serious risk of over-exploitation, possibly to the point of extinction, before anyone knew anything about this new species of the deep. Something had to be done.

Andrew approached the Fishing Development and Research Council and Deakin University, and working with seed funding from local government won the first of two competitive research grants and secured in-kind co-operation from fishermen across southern Australia.

In excess of 79,000 crabs were profiled and another 19,000 were tagged and put back into the ocean to study their growth.

“To grow, crabs have to throw off their shells, so I invented a tag that would stay with the crab and was simple to apply,” he said. The tag is now used worldwide.

Andrew quickly added that without the assistance of fishermen and others in educational and government institutions he would have achieved little.

“One thing I do want to make clear is that although I am the one with doctor in front of my name and all these other things, it is also about others. I would be nothing without the help of the professional fisherman who worked on this project with me,” he says.

“One in particular, Jamie Mathison from Robe South Australia, provided a continuous time series of data for every crab he caught over a seven year period, 40,000 of them. That data set is without parallel worldwide and helped the interpretation of less substantial collections from elsewhere. I set up the protocols and often went to sea and coached fishermen how to provide quality information. I hope they are proud of what we have achieved.”

Not everyone was as keen as Andrew to see controls placed on the harvesting of the giant crabs.

“Like anywhere in life, there are greedy people,” Andrew said.

What goes largely unsaid there is that, in the face of some stiff opposition, Andrew worked across state boundaries to bring together fishing authorities around Australia to impose and police limits on the harvesting of the crabs.

“What we had was a rare opportunity in research,” he said. “It’s normally the case when authorities get involved in the fishing industry they’re trying to repair damaged goods.

“When I started on this work there were some areas where the crab was being over-exploited. There were others where their populations were still pristine.

“By comparing these pristine populations to the others, then by imposing size limits and other restrictions, we have been able to create a sustainable industry.”

Not surprisingly, Andrew’s work has attracted international attention. He has just returned from addressing a symposium in Alaska based around the impact of global warming on the crab fishing industries.

“The title of my talk was the influence of water temperature on the life history of the giant crab,” he said. “They were very upfront about letting me know how much they enjoyed the talk, and I learned a great deal from these international masters.”

“There are so many factors these days impacting on the fishing industry and my goal was to show what can be done by co-operation between the diverse groups of industry, education and government to keep something viable.”

Or to put it another way: hunting for insight and striving to find ways to intelligently manage our future.


The giant crab
The giant crab
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20th August 2012