Learn about the following species groups (including their most common members, as well as purchasing, storage and cooking information), or select a specific species from the species list on the right.
Rocklobsters, known as spiny lobsters in most parts of the world, are also sometimes called crayfish, sea crayfish or crawfish. They shouldn’t be confused with freshwater crayfish such as Yabbies and Marrons, nor with the ‘true’ lobsters of the northern hemisphere; the main differences being ‘true’ lobsters’ huge claws or nippers, containing a significant proportion of meat, and much smaller antennae. Higher priced than most crustaceans, Rocklobsters are a popular Australian festive food, especially at Christmas time.
There are about 45 species belonging to the Palinuridae (or spiny lobster) family worldwide. They occur in almost all warm seas (including Caribbean and Mediterranean) but are most prolific in the southern hemisphere, particularly Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Available wild-caught (though Southern Rocklobsters are being assessed for aquaculture), these marine crustaceans are found around the Australian coast usually under rocks or in crevices, only venturing out after dark to scavenge for small crabs, clams and sea urchins. There are 4 main types of Rocklobsters found in Australian waters:
Eastern Rocklobsters (Jasus verreauxi), the world’s largest Rocklobsters (recorded up to 8kg), are found from the NSW-Queensland border to Bass Strait and the north east coast of Tasmania, and caught mainly off NSW. Their fishery is comparatively small, but valuable given their popularity in Sydney. They have short antennae and antennules (between the antennae), unlike Tropical and Western, and look similar to Southern, except for their greeny-black shell and smooth tail. They are available year round.
Southern Rocklobsters (Jasus edwardsii) are found from Geraldton, WA, south to Coffs Harbour, NSW, including around the Tasmanian coast, but are caught mainly off SA. They look similar to Eastern, with their short antennae and antennules, but their shell is rough-textured and orange-red. They are available year round.
Western Rocklobsters (Panulirus cygnus) are endemic to Australia, they are found from Shark Bay to Albany, WA, and are closely related to Tropical. By far the most valuable commercial species in Australia (worth over half the value of total Australian finfish catch), they are mostly exported live or frozen to Japan, Taiwan or China. Their reddish-purple shell has fine fur on it. They have very long antennae and the flagella on the medium-length antennules between the antennae are also long and forked (unlike Eastern and Southern). Supplies peak from December to May, with closures from July to November.
Tropical Rocklobsters (Panulirus ornatus and other Panulirus species except P.cygnus) have the widest distribution, from Margaret River, WA, around the northern coast of Australia down to the Central Coast of NSW, although they are mainly caught in Torres Strait, by spear or hand, with the fishery jointly managed by Australia and Papua New Guinea. Their body colour varies, but is often brightly patterned (especially the legs), their antennae are extremely long and the flagella on the long antennules are also long and forked. Ornate Rocklobsters (P.ornatus) are the main commercial Tropical Rocklobster in Australia and the largest, their supply peaks from March to October.
Rocklobsters are usually sold live, as frozen green tails, or cooked whole (frozen or chilled). If possible buy live, in which case they should be lively with a hard shell (indicating that they haven’t recently moulted) and all limbs and antennae should be intact. Avoid green (raw dead) Rocklobsters (except for frozen tails) as it’s hard to tell how long they’ve been dead for and the flesh deteriorates very quickly. In cooked Rocklobsters, look for brightly coloured, firm, intact, lustrous shells, without any discolouration, particularly at joints, and a pleasant fresh sea smell. They should feel heavy for their size and their tails should be tightly curled.
The easiest and most humane way to kill any crustacean is to chill it in the freezer for about 45 minutes until it becomes insensible (but not long enough to freeze it). Once chilled, it should be killed promptly by splitting in half or dropping into rapidly boiling water. See www.rspca.org.au for more details.
Live crustaceans should be consumed as soon as possible after purchase. Place live Rocklobsters in a container, cover with damp paper or cloth and keep in the warmest part of the refrigerator, which is usually the crisper (optimum 5°C), for up to 2 days, keeping their covering damp (except for Tropical Rocklobsters which are happier in a container lined with damp paper, covered with damp paper or cloth and kept in a cool part of the house, keeping the lining and covering damp). Wrap dead Rocklobsters in plastic wrap or place in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 months below -18ºC.
Steam, poach, deep-fry, pan-fry, stir-fry, bake, grill, or barbecue Rocklobsters or serve the flesh raw (sashimi). Tropical Rocklobsters are considered the best for sashimi, however those from cooler waters (such as Southern) are preferred for cooking. Undercook, rather than overcook, them, as they will continue cooking in the residual heat, if overcooked the meat will be tough and leathery. Use the shell (carapace) to flavour stocks, soups and sauces.
To boil an uncooked Rocklobster, chill it well if it’s alive (see Killing Rocklobsters above), then place into a large pot of rapidly boiling water, that has been well salted (½ cup table salt to 2.5 litres water), for 7 minutes per 500g up to 1kg, or 5 minutes per 500g for larger specimens (timed from when the water returns to the boil). Refresh in iced water.
To serve in shell: place the cooked Rocklobster on its back and, using a sharp knife, split the length of the shell from head to tail. Discard the grey gills in the top of the head and remove the digestive tract (grey thread) running down the middle of the tail meat, and the tomalley or ‘mustard’ (liver), which is green in raw Rocklobsters and yellowy-orange in cooked; some people retain this to enrich sauce or mayonnaise.
To serve meat only: twist the tail away from the head or, in larger specimens, place the cooked Rocklobster on its back and, using a sharp knife, separate the tail from the head. Use kitchen scissors to cut down either side of the underside of the tail shell. Pull shell back and remove the meat in one piece. Slice into medallions or leave whole.
Serve cold boiled Rocklobster simply split in half with mayonnaise (flavoured with garlic, herbs, horseradish or some of the ‘mustard’), olive oil and lemon juice vinaigrette, or Asian dipping sauce, or reheat gently under a grill or in the oven, with garlic, or herb, butter drizzled over the cut surface. Apart from this gentle warming, do not recook cooked Rocklobsters, use the meat in salads, as a garnish for soups, tossed through hot pasta or in other dishes where it’s only lightly reheated, such as omelettes. Rocklobsters can be used in any recipes calling for true lobsters (often in American or British cookbooks), and in regions of the world where both are available, many people claim the Rocklobster is superior.