Sea walls, rock lobster populations feeling the pinch

As Torres Strait Islander elders take the Australian government to court for alleged inaction on climate change, the national science agency is documenting global warming's impacts in the region.

The CSIRO is embarking on a project modelling the effects of climate change on key fisheries in the Torres Strait, including those inhabited by tropical rock lobster (kaiar), sea cucumber (aber) and finfish. 

The project expands on work researchers have been conducting over 30 years surveying rock lobster populations in the region.

And while the CSIRO says the lobster fishery is one of the most important economically for Torres Strait Islander people, law student Chelsea Aniba is worried about the effects of climate change on her home island of Saibai.

Ms Aniba has been in Melbourne in November supporting elders Pabai Pabai and Paul Kabai at hearings in their Federal Court case alleging the Commonwealth breached its duty of care to the people of the Torres Strait.

Uncle Pabai Pabai (left) and Uncle Paul Kabai
Torres Strait Islander elders Pabai Pabai (left) and Paul Kabai have taken the Commonwealth to court

The results of this year’s rock lobster survey will be available in December and should provide clues as to how a large-scale change in a key regional climate driver – namely the switch from La Nina to El Nino – may be affecting the fishery.  

Research suggests that in the past, a strong El Nino likely led to poor catches of lobsters in the Torres Strait. 

The total catch of tropical rock lobster has fluctuated between 132 tonnes and 917 tonnes per year for the Australian sectors in the Torres Strait over the past four decades.  

Ms Aniba told AAP that finding other traditional food sources had become harder too due to salination and changes to habitat.

"Climate change has different phases and it's not all about just those high tides," she said.

"It's about the bushfires, it's about the droughts, it's about all these things that are affecting all Australians around the country."

A file photo of Sabai Island
Torres Strait communities are dealing with increasing inundation and erosion from rising sea levels.

The elders allege the Commonwealth should have taken more action to prevent or minimise climate change impacts. 

They also say the Commonwealth breached its duty of care by not adequately funding seawalls in the Torres Strait and failing to investigate other adaptation measures.

The court is hearing evidence from climate science experts after receiving on-country testimony from community members.

Coastal engineer Stuart Bettington has been involved in Torres Strait projects and said a 2017 seawall on Saibai was built to a lower-than-desirable height due to financial constraints.

He explained communities already had to adapt to increased inundation and erosion in other ways, including elevating houses on stilts.

Ms Aniba is optimistic about the case and pointed to successful climate litigation in the Netherlands.

The court hearing resumes on Tuesday.

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