Rod's finfish expertise rewarded

On the verge of retirement, leading Western Australian fisheries researcher Rod Lenanton reflects on his career and future challenges for the industry

Rod Lenanton’s research has contributed to sustainable fishing in Western Australia. He is pictured with a double-tagged Snapper in Cockburn Sound.

By Lynda Delacey

Rod Lenanton might have followed his boyhood dream and become a fisher, if his father had not persuaded him to pursue a career in higher education. The change in direction has been a boon for fishers in Western Australia.

As one of the nation’s leading fisheries researchers, Rod Lenanton’s 50-year career has made a major contribution to the sustainability of the state’s fisheries and to the development of new generations of marine researchers.

He is widely acknowledged as the finfish expert in WA. Now enjoying semi-retirement, Rod Lenanton is also the most recent winner of the ‘Brownlow Medal’ of the fisheries biology world, the Australian Society for Fish Biology’s K.R. Allen Award.

After leaving high school in Perth in 1962, Rod Lenanton became the first research cadet appointed by the WA Department of Fisheries.

He studied at the University of Western Australia (UWA) and worked for the department each summer vacation before graduating in 1964. During his early years with the department he learned the ropes in various fisheries including the Western Rock Lobster, Shark Bay Prawn and Exmouth Gulf turtle fisheries.

“Field trips in those days meant going bush for months, on creaky government research vessels or chartered commercial vessels,” Rod Lenanton says.

“The conditions could be a bit rough, but it was more than compensated for by the knowledge imparted by the skippers, and the chance to spend time fishing and snorkelling in virtually pristine environments.”

Finfish initiation

Shark Bay was the location of one of Rod Lenanton’s first finfish projects, looking at how to keep the local beach seine fishery sustainable; there were some concerns that key target species were being overfished. He chartered the sailboat of local net fisher Mick Fry to undertake research on the whiting species that were the fishery’s main target.

“It was a fantastic trip, but Mick swore by a very basic diet of black tea, powdered milk, Weet-Bix, tinned beef, rice and whatever fish we were able to catch for dinner,” Rod Lenanton recalls. “Towards the end of the trip we all developed a skin condition. But Mick introduced some cabbage into our diet and we all came good.”

The research from the trip earned Rod Lenanton his Masters degree in 1970 and was the start of his long association with finfish and Shark Bay. Through the next few decades, Rod became the inaugural leader of the newly created Finfish Research Group in the Research Division of the WA Department of Fisheries.

He worked on Shark Bay whiting as well as snapper and, in collaboration with CSIRO scientists, on species such as Australian Salmon and herring.

Snapper recovery

Rod Lenanton supervised the research team whose work helped snapper populations in Shark Bay recover from overfishing that was largely the result of recreational, rather than commercial, fishing pressure. In 2006, the Department received the WA Premier’s Award for this work, the first time the award had been given to a natural resource project.

The president of the Shark Bay Fisherman’s Association, Dennis Hoult, says he believes Rod Lenanton’s work has ensured the beach seine and mesh net fishery has remained sustainable for more than half a century.

“We probably have one of the better managed fisheries in Australia,” he says. “I think a lot of that is the contribution from Rod’s work in doing the research and liaising with the local community and fishing fleet. He’s been an ally of ours the past 50-odd years and really has the confidence of the whole community.”

Through the 1970s, Rod Lenanton carried out benchmark environmental impact assessments on temperate estuaries throughout WA, working with researchers from UWA and Murdoch University. As a result of these studies and other collaborations with researchers at Murdoch University, he was awarded an adjunct associate professorship in 2000.

A study trip to South Africa in 1980 with another scientist to explore estuarine research resulted in a greater appreciation of the role of habitat in fisheries and helped conceptualise Rod Lenanton’s PhD thesis.

An early research project at Shark Bay lead to a life-long association with the region and its fishers for Red Lenaton An early research project at Shark Bay lead to a life-long association with the region and its fishers for Red Lenaton

“The research gave us a far better understanding of how important environmental factors like seagrass and macro algae are to economically important fish,” he says.

From the 1980s, Rod Lenanton moved into managing WA’s expanding Finfish Research Group and mentoring young scientists. Many of his ex-students now hold senior positions in some of Australia’s leading universities and government institutions. He has provided input as a scientific adviser to working groups at state and national levels.

He has also helped develop crucial linkages between the Department of Fisheries and WA’s universities, including the formation of Murdoch University’s Centre for Fish and Fisheries Research, which opened in 2000.

Recreational fishing

Rod Lenanton has long advocated engagement between the recreational fishing community and scientific researchers.

He undertook the first published recreational fishing survey in Australia and his ongoing work helped the WA Recreational Fishing Advisory Committee undertake a major review that clearly identified a need for more research into recreational fishing.

This led to the introduction of voluntary logbooks for anglers, active engagement with angling clubs, and eventually the first broad-scale recreational boat fishing survey on the west coast in 1996.

WA appointed Australia’s first dedicated recreational fisheries manager as a result of this work, which has had a flow-on effect at the national level.

Rod Lenanton’s longer-term research interests have included the influence of hydrodynamics on coastal processes and fisheries off the west coast, and how marine environmental conditions change with time. He has presented papers on the influence of the Leeuwin Current on WA’s fisheries and contributed to reports on the effects of climate change on temperate coastal fish.

Part of his legacy is the leading role of the Finfish Research Group in producing high-quality research that underpins the sustainable management of finfish resources in WA. He now works one day a week in an advisory role.

Dennis Hoult says Rod’s people skills have been an important part of his success in dealing with fishers.

“There’s a great mutual respect between the fishers and Rod, which is quite a rare thing to see these days.”

Future challenges

Rod Lenanton says he has been fortunate to have such a good rapport with the industry over the years. “I think it’s because we put structures in place to do that, such as the management advice committee system and public and industry meetings that happened through the 1980s and 1990s,” he says.

The meetings provided a forum for rigorous debate about the results of the science being done and how that translated into management.

“In WA, particularly, we’re seeing a shift of management responsibility from government to the actual fishing sectors. All we have now is a single peak body each for commercial and recreational fishing, and the opportunity for us to get together and rigorously debate decisions in light of research results is all but gone. For recreational fishers, there’s a real gap in community understanding about how we develop our scientific advice. I think bridging that gap is critical.”

He says research challenges for the future include understanding the cycles of stock abundance over time so that problems can be recognised and managed.

“Natural cycles of abundance of different species can stretch beyond living memory. We need to get the funding to establish and maintain very long-term databases. Without them, you can’t make informed decisions. I see that as a major issue for fisheries managers in the next few decades.” 

FRDC Research Codes: 2010-535, 2004-057, 2003-052, 2000-134

More information

Rod Lenanton, 08 9203 0211