Australian Society For Fish Biology

Rod Lenanton

At the ASFB Conference in Townsville this year, the Society recognised the significant career achievements of one of its longstanding members, Western Australia’s Rod Lenanton, by awarding him the K.R. Allen Award.  Rod, now a Senior Principal Research Scientist with the Western Australian Department of Fisheries, where he has worked for more than 45 years, is one of Australia’s most highly regarded finfish fishery scientists.  

He was born in 1944 in Claremont, an inner suburb of Perth where he still lives, and attended Perth Modern School.  A keen angler since his earliest boyhood years, Rod was set on becoming a commercial fisherman after finishing high school.  However, his father, a teacher, had other ideas and encouraged him to go onto university.  In his final year at high school, Rod successfully applied for a fisheries research cadetship offered by the Western Australian Department of Fisheries (he was the first cadet appointed under this program).  Thus, his distinguished scientific career really began in February 1962 when he commenced employment with the Department as a cadet, shortly before starting at the University of Western Australia (UWA) where he studied Zoology and Botany.  He worked for the Department fulltime during each summer vacation before graduating in 1964.  One of the ‘benefits’ of being a cadet was that you had to work as a deckie on the Department’s research vessel RV Lancelin during the long summer vacations.  This old wooden boat lived up to all the best traditions of government research vessels by allowing young fisheries researchers to gain a thorough understanding of seasickness…with the only toilet being ‘over the side’.  

His early years working for the Deapartment saw Rod learning the ropes on various fisheries research projects including Western rock lobster (working with Bernard Bowen), Shark Bay prawns (working with Eric Barker) and the Exmouth Gulf turtle fishery.  One of his first finfish jobs saw him sent to Shark Bay to undertake research on the whiting species that were the main target of the Shark Bay beach seine and mesh net fishery.  Field trips in those days meant going bush for months but at least in your spare time you could go fishing and snorkeling in virtually pristine environments on the WA coast.  Rod will always treasure the experience of being face-to face with a big tiger shark on the reef off Gnaraloo (north of Carnarvon).  Of that time, Rod recounts tales of some hardship, especially the poor diet, while living onboard the sailboat of local net fisher Mick Fry, tagging whiting (with technical officer Peter Yewers) in and around the bays and inlets of Shark Bay’s inner gulfs.  Rod subsequently wrote this research up for his Masters degree (‘Biology of the commercially fished whiting (Sillago spp.) in Shark Bay, Western Australia [UWA]) that he submitted in 1970.

By this time he had formally became the inaugural leader of the newly created Finfish Research Group, the beginning of his career-long association with this area of the WA Department of Fisheries’ research activities.  In March 1970, he undertook a 6-month world study tour that saw him visit Hawaii, the Inter American Tropical Tuna Commission in La Jolla, Washington State Fisheries Department in Olympia, Aarhus in Denmark, to attend an FAO Symposium, and finally the UK’s Fisheries Research Laboratories in Lowestoft.  Through the 1970s, as well as Shark Bay whiting, Rod also worked on snapper and collaborated with CSIRO scientists working on species such as Australian salmon and herring.
During this period, Rod was developing a keen interest in estuarine fishes, something he shared with both his mentor from UWA, Ernest Hodgkin, and later, with Ian Potter at Murdoch University, through their early research on temperate estuaries in the south-west of WA.  These benchmark environmental impact assessments in the south-west’s estuarine systems initially, in the early 1970s on the Blackwood River, in response to a mineral sand mining proposal, and subsequently, in the mid 1970s on the Peel-Harvey system, are recognized as some of the first interdisciplinary studies of their type.  

This was the beginning of his long relationship with Ian and Murdoch University that was formally recognised with his appointment as an Associate Professor in 2000.  Rod has helped supervise students researching virtually every species in every estuary in WA, with many of his ex-students now occupying the most senior positions in some of Australia’s leading universities and government institutions. In this alone, his contribution to coastal marine and estuarine research in Australia has been enormous. 

In 1980, Rod undertook a study trip to South Africa with Ernest Hodgkin to gain experience of estuarine research there, during which time he met a young Lynnath Beckley who was studying at Rhodes University, Port Elizabeth (now Prof Beckley of Murdoch University).  During the 1980s Rod worked on his PhD thesis on the use of estuarine and inshore marine habitats by estuarine-dependent fish (‘The role of estuarine and inshore-marine environments in the life cycles of the exploited marine fish species of temperate Western Australia’, Murdoch University) that he submitted in 1988.  During this same period he was also a valued collaborator in CSIRO’s coastal ecology program in WA.

Between the late 1970s and early 1980s, Rod’s role with the Department of Fisheries was changing from that of a fulltime hands-on-scientist to one of managing the expanding Finfish Research Group and mentoring young scientists.  As the Department’s finfish-related research and management workload increased, the Research Division pursued a policy of recruiting junior scientists to work on specific fisheries/species, a policy that saw David Heald (to work on sharks), Mike Walker (salmon and herring), Mike Moran (Shark Bay snapper), Rick Fletcher (pilchards) and many others join the team.   In the mid-1980s, Rod continued to strongly support temperate shark research, in collaboration with workers in other southern states including Terry Walker in Victoria that resulted in Colin Simpendorfer joining the Finfish team also. 
The 1990s-2000s saw Rod busy supervising the various Finfish staff and their diverse research activities, providing input to Departmental working groups, representing the Department at a state (e.g. scientific advisor to Swan River Trust) and national level (Commonwealth Sharks, Tuna, Western Trawl).  During this period he was also on the Editorial Board of Australian Journal of Marine & Freshwater Research.  Rod was actively involved in developing and maintaining crucial linkages between the Department of Fisheries and Western Australia’s universities, in particular UWA and Murdoch University.  He was instrumental alongside Ian Potter in the development of Murdoch’s Centre for Fish and Fisheries Research that opened in 2000.  

With Suzy Avayzian (who joined the Department from Murdoch University after completing a post-doc), Rod started and nurtured a project that has resulted in one of the Australia’s longest-running finfish recruitment time-series.  This grew out of a tailor-tagging and post-capture survival project that recruited volunteer recreational fishers to catch the tailor.  The research continues to this day.  Every year, on Tuesday nights between February-April, from a jetty in the Swan River, with pizza, beer and general gasbagging, Rod is still prominent among the volunteers, casting his whitebait and reeling in 0+ tailor.

Throughout his career Rod had been as strong supporter of ASFB, encouraging staff to join and attend annual conferences and was a WA state rep from the mid 1980s to 1992.  In 2002, he was presented with an Outstanding Service Award (nominated by his peers), for service to the fishing sector in WA.

Rod has always been a strong advocate of the need for dedicated research into recreational fishing in WA since his earliest years with the Department.   In 1974, along with Nick Caputi he was responsible for a survey of recreational fishing in Blackwood River (the first published recreational fishing survey in Australia).   In 1990, he played a key role in assisting the WA Recreational Fishing Advisory Committee undertake a major review of recreational fishing that clearly identified recreational research needs and that 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.  These developments in WA, that also saw the creation of Australia’s first dedicated recreational fisheries manager, had a significant flow on effect at the national level.

More recently Rod’s work has included risk assessment and prioritisation of sustainable harvest level estimation for WAs finfish indicator species, the development of monitoring and assessment strategies within a broader Ecosystem Based Fishery Management framework, and the assisting with the implementation of the Integrated Fisheries Management Initiative that attempts to set sustainable catch levels and equitable catch allocation between all fishing sectors.

While Rod’s research interests over his long career are of a broad scope there are recurring themes, threads than can be followed, often involving long collaborations with colleagues.   One such area is his interest in the influence of hydrodynamics on coastal processes and fisheries off the west coast and how marine environmental conditions change with time.  He presented papers on the influence of the Leeuwin Current on WAs fisheries at Leeuwin Current Symposia, in 1991 and again in 2007.  He contributed to the chapter on temperate coastal fish to the CSIRO National Flagship Marine Climate Change Impacts & Adaptation Final Report in 2009.  He is currently a co-investigator with Nick Caputi and others on the FRDC-funded project ‘Management implications of climate change effect on fisheries in Western Australia’, that aims to address priority questions outlined in the NCCARF Adaptation Research Plan.  Most recently, he worked with Alan Pearce & Gary Jackson to organize the ‘marine heatwave workshop’ held at Hillarys in May this year and published a report on the workshop outcomes.  

Rod relinquished supervision of ‘his’ Finfish Group in 2009 and moved to a part-time role to be able to spend more time with wife Zena and chasing Perth’s nearshore fish species in particular his two favourites, herring and tailor.  Part of his legacy is a Finfish Research Group that now employs 13 scientists and 12 technical staff and continues to undertake high class research that provides the scientific basis that underpins the sustainable management of the finfish resources of Western Australia.  He still works 3 days a week, jointly sharing his time in an oversight and advisory role with the Finfish and Stock Assessment and Data Analysis (SADA) Groups.  We are still benefiting from his ability to get right to the scientific core of an issue and clearly communicate complex concepts to other staff and colleagues.  From close friends and colleagues of more than 40 years then, a quiet achiever, a highly respected scientist, an innovator and a man with a deep passion for WAs finfish and marine environment.  As his good friend Ross Cusak (in his memoir ‘Hooked for Life’) said, we all ‘listen to the Finfish Man’.

Selected References

Lenanton RCJ (1978) Age, spawning time, and fecundity of Australian herring (Arripis georgianus) (Pisces: Arripidae) from the water around Rottnest Island, Western Australia. Australian Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 29, 599-612.

Lenanton RCJ (1982) Alternative non-estuarine nursery habitats for some commercially and recreationally important fish species of south-western Australia. Australian Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 33, 881-900.

Lenanton RCJ, Robertson AI, Hansen JA (1982) Nearshore accumulations of detatched macrophytes as nursery areas for fish. Marine Ecology Progress Series 9,51-57.

Lenanton RCJ, Hodgkin EP (1985) Life history strategies of fish in some temperate Australian estuaries.  In Yanez-Arancibia, A (ed) ‘Fish community ecology in estuaries and coastal lagoons’, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Mexico, pp 267-284.

Lenanton RCJ, Potter IC (1987) Contribution of estuaries to commercial fisheries in temperature Western Australia and the concept of estuarine dependence. Estuaries 10, 28-35.

Lenanton RCJ, Heald DI, Platell M, Shaw, J (1990) Aspects of the reproductive biology of the gummy shark, Mustelus antarcticus Gunther, from waters off the south coast of Western Australia.  Australian Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 41, 807-822.

Lenanton RC, Joll LW, Penn JW, Jones K (1991) The influence of the Leeuwin Current on coastal fisheries of Western Australia. In Pearce AF, Walker DI (eds) ‘The Leeuwin Current: an influence on the coastal climate and marine life of Western Australia’. Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia 74, 101-114.

Edmonds JS, Lenanton RCJ, Caputi N, Morita M (1992) Trace elements in the otoliths of yellow-eye mullet (Aldrichetta forsteri) as an aid to stock identification. Fisheries Research 13, 39-51.

Lenanton RCJ, Ayvazian SG, Pearce AF, Steckis RA, Young GC (1996) Tailor (Pomatomus saltratrix) off Western Australia: Where does it spawn, and how are larvae distributed? Marine and Freshwater Research 47, 337–346.

Lenanton RCJ, Ayvazian SG, Dibden C, Jenkins G, Sarre G (1999) The use of stock enhancement to improve the catch rates of black bream Acanthopagrus butcheri (Munro) for Western Australian recreational fishers. In Howell RB, Moksness E, Svasand T (eds) ‘Stock enhancement and sea ranching. Osney Mead, Fishing News Books, pp 205-218.

Cappo M, Walters CF, Lenanton RC (2000) Estimation of rates of migration, exploitation and survival using tag recovery data for western Australian salmon (Arripis truttaceus:  Arripidae: Percoidei).  Fisheries Research 44, 207-217.

Molony BW, Lenanton RCJ, Jackson G, Norriss J (2003) Stock enhancement as a fisheries management tool. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 13, 409-432.

Lenanton RCJ, Valesini F, Bastow TP, Nowara GB, Edmonds JS, Connard MN (2003) The use of stable isotope ratios in whitebait otolith carbonate to identify the source of prey for Western Australian penguins. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 291, 17-27.

Lenanton RC, Caputi N, Kangas M, Craine M (2009) The ongoing influence of the Leeuwin Current on economically important fish and invertebrates off temperate Western Australia : has it changed? In Meney K, Brocx M (eds) ‘The Leeuwin Current Symposium 2007’. Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia 92, 111-127.

Lenanton R, St John J, Keay I, Wakefield C, Jackson G, Wise B, Gaughan D (Eds) (2009). Spatial scales of exploitation among populations of demersal scalefish: implications for management. Part 2: Stock structure and biology of two indicator species, West Australian dhufish (Glaucosoma hebraicum) and pink snapper (Pagrus auratus), in the West Coast Bioregion. Fisheries Research Report No 174. Department of Fisheries, Western Australia, Perth.

Lenanton R, Wise B, St John J, Keay I, Gaughan D (Eds) (2009). Maximising survival of released undersize west coast reef fish. Fisheries Research Report No 191. Department of Fisheries, Western Australia, Perth.

Fairclough DV, Edmonds J, Lenanton RCJ, Jackson G, Keay I, Crisafulli B, Newman S (2011) Rapid and cost-effective assessment of connectivity among assemblages of Choerodon rubescens (Labridae) using ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry of sagittal otoliths. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 403, 46-53.