Rock lobster larvae. Image: Greg Smith.

For the first time, scientists at AIMS have uncovered the natural diet of tropical rock lobster larvae, in work that is expected to lead to advances in the development of artificial feeds for sustainable farming of the high-value species.

Lobsters are a luxury seafood and there are concerns that the wild harvest will not be able to keep up with growing global demand, particularly with strong growth in the Chinese market.

Commercial hatchery propagation of rock lobsters has become one of the holy grails for the aquaculture industry but has not been achieved yet because of the mystery surrounding aspects of their complex larval development and natural food. The lobster's larval life is up to six times longer than that of farmed prawns. They are very delicate and, in the wild, live in oceanic waters over 2,000 metres deep and far removed from the habitats of well studied crustaceans.

Because lobster larvae are translucent and occur in pristine oceanic waters well off the coast, their natural ecology is difficult to study. This is compounded by their vertical movement through the water column in response to light, food availability and moon phases. Their food is also translucent and until now little has been known about what they eat.

AIMS researchers solved this problem by taking lobster larvae grown in the AIMS hatchery out into the Coral Sea in special tanks aboard the RVCape Fergusonand exposing them to a range of potential prey items harvested from their natural habitat. The researchers found that the larvae preferred soft bodied zooplankton and this knowledge will now be used to make a better artificial diet for hatchery-reared larvae.

This work shows how AIMS researchers have used a unique mix of skills and capabilities to fill the knowledge gaps and move rock lobster aquaculture closer to being realised.