China was the recurring topic at a gathering of the Australasian rock lobster industry in Queenstown this week.

The live lobster market, worth $300 million to New Zealand in annual exports, is booming but there is also concern about such reliance on a single market.

Rabobank general manager food and agribusiness research for Australia and New Zealand, Tim Hunt, said China was a great match for Australasian producers, placing high value on clean, safe food.

China’s rapid development was an economic miracle that had created 3.5 million millionaires.

The scale of wealth creation was such that there would be 5.5 million millionaires by 2021.

That dynamic was very favourable for high-end products like southern rock lobster.

Based on the current combined catch of about 12,000 tonnes, that was six crayfish per millionaire.

The US-China trade war, where virtually every product was now tariffed, created short term gains with less competition. But longer term there would be likely pain caused by slower economic growth, an end of trade liberalisation, and maybe having to choose sides, with the relationship with China becoming more difficult.

NZ Rock Lobster Industry Council chief executive Mark Edwards outlined a complex array of threats that could threaten the extraordinary success of the fishery and what could be done to address those.

The fishery was “the most valuable wild harvest species” and catches had been stable since the introduction of the Quota Management System (QMS).

And it was now far more efficient, with fewer boats, catch per unit effort as much as six times greater, less fuel use, less bait needed and better fishing for all sectors.

However, the rights-based framework that underpinned the QMS was incomplete in that the recreational catch formed a major proportion of the overall take in some fisheries.

The extent of the recreational catch was uncertain, compounded by a lack of willingness by the regulator to manage it.

Australia was more advanced in this area, with licensing in some states, and policies that included allocation of proportional shares, buy-backs of commercial entitlements, and compensation or offsets where recreational fishing displaced commercial fishing.

Another risk was that of whale entanglements in lobster pot lines given the marked recovery of populations, predominantly humpbacks in this country.

Solutions included avoiding excessive slack in pot ropes, removing pots from the water when not fishing, avoiding setting pots in clusters, collecting any abandoned or lost lines or rope and checking pots regularly.  Operators were encouraged to report sightings to forewarn other fishermen in the path of migrating whales.

"We came here to celebrate success, but we have to work even harder to secure that,” Edwards said.

Kaikoura’s Larnce Wichman detailed the impact on the cray fishery of the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake and destruction of inshore habitat.

Delegates got "the full sensory experience" that evening when a 6.3 quake provided a short, sharp shock.

Cathy Webb, manager of Seafood NZ’s Seafood Standards Council stressed the need for continual monitoring of biotoxins to reduce the risk of Chinese bans on the lucrative lobster trade.

It was well known that lobsters can accumulate biotoxins in their gut, although this does not affect the flesh.

Webb warned that if lobster tested at the Chinese border was found to be over regulatory limits there would likely be an immediate ban on trade, of indeterminate length.

Traceability back to the harvest area will be vital. China would demand answers and expect an investigation and response.

The two-day biennial conference was opened by National’s Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker, a former deckhand on a crab boat out of Dunedin and tuna fisher on the West Coast where he was known by the skipper as “the useless, hairy-arsed schoolboy”.

The rock lobster conference followed the annual Seafood NZ conference, also held in Queenstown this year, with about 300 delegates at each.