THE south-west's rock lobster industry has come to a grinding halt as China's response to the coronavirus causes the crayfish export market to shut down.
Processors began informing south-west fishers last week they would stop accepting further rock lobster catches, leaving the small business owners in limbo.
The decision follows a flood of cancelled export orders during Chinese New Year, usually the industry's busiest time, with stock now piling up in some Australian factories.
Rock lobster fisherman David McCarthy was one of about six in Portland this week unable to deliver their catch to a contracted factory.
Mr McCarthy now fears he won't fish again for months.
"It is a shock. It's very unexpected to be this severe," he said.
"The factories can't handle what they have now let alone any more."
Rock lobster fishers are required to buy a quota that caps their total catch in Victorian waters for the financial year.
But with almost all of Victoria's rock lobster exported, mostly to Asia, the shutdown has left fishers worried they have paid for quotas they now won't reach.
Mr McCarthy said that could leave him with "hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of uncaught fish".
He said selling to the domestic market was "just not viable" due to its small scale and the quota's high price.
"If this resolves itself in a month it would be a big help, but I don't think it will," he said.
"Depending on your own circumstances and how well off you are, it could be devastating."
Mr McCarthy removed his 130 cray pots from waters off Portland on Wednesday, and said his son and a deck hand would now be out of work for the foreseeable future.
Apollo Bay-based Victorian Rock Lobster Association president Markus Nolle said between 50 and 60 south-west fishers had "downed tools" this week.
"This would be their peak fishing period of the year and they are having to stop work," Mr Nolle said.
"It's a $200 million national export industry hanging in limbo."
Mr Nolle said the government needed to take action and he was disappointed with authorities' "absence" so far.
"If it gets to the point where it looks like the quotas won't be reached, rolling over the quota to next financial year is a good idea," he said.
"Similar to the emergency funding that the government supports farmers with in the land there might need to be similar considerations for the farmers of the sea."
But Mr Nolle believed the rock lobster industry was only the first to be caught by the ripple effects of the virus.
"It will start bleeding into other industries, dairy, meat, food and fresh vegetables," he said.
"The reality is other south-west industries will be impacted."
The state government was contacted for comment.
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