The Government said it would allow live crayfish exporters to return the delicacy - currently being held in tanks - to the sea.

Between 150 and 180 tonnes of live crayfish, or rock lobster, are being held in New Zealand in pots and tanks, at sea and on land, after export orders were cancelled by Chinese distributors in response to the outbreak of coronavirus, which so far has killed 427 people.

Chinese New Year is the peak of lobster consumption in China and the Chinese Government has extended the break to February 8 in a bid to curtail the spread of the disease.

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The Chinese authorities have imposed restrictions on transport and public gatherings and activities to try and prevent the transmission of the disease and limit fatalities.

Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash said the decision means that crayfish can be harvested again when the trade disruptions are resolved.

"The coronavirus is taking a big toll on ordinary Chinese people. Millions of people cannot go about their usual routines because of the need to minimise health risks and observe restrictions on movements and gatherings," he said in a statement.

Nash said not all rock lobster held in tanks on land would be able to be returned to the sea.

"Where lobster from different sources have been brought together at processing facilities, officials will consider their release on a case-by-case basis. In doing this they will consider potential implications for biosecurity and sustainability," he said.

Nash said the industry would be required to find new markets for rock lobster which are not able to be returned to sea.

There are strict rules around the return of rock lobsters to the sea, and fishery officers will be required to monitor the process.

Nash said he was considering another request for a technical change to allow catch entitlements to be carried forward from one fishery year to the next.


Mark Edwards, chief executive of the New Zealand Rock Lobster Industry Council, said the Government's move reflected "constructive discussions" that have been held with the Ministry over the past few days.

"Return of lobsters to the sea may be a useful option, particularly if those lobsters are available to harvest in the future through the carry-forward of un-used entitlements," he said in a statement.

Return of crayfish to the sea needed to be undertaken with care to ensure high survival.

"The industry is well placed for this because it has developed sophisticated animal husbandry procedures for transport of live lobsters to the export market," he said.

Edwards said he did not expect market access issues to be resolved in the short term.

"The abrupt halt to rock lobster harvesting last week has already had serious effects on our fishermen and companies," he said.

The rock lobster industry is widely distributed in regional communities, with more than 100 landing points throughout New Zealand.

Crayfish prices fallen to around $80 per kilogram, down from their usual market price of around $130 per kilogram, as previously export-bound product finds its way onto the domestic market.