By Lewis Smith
A fish that is “highly vulnerable” to overfishing and has suffered multiple population collapses could be awarded the prestigious Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) eco-label within a year.
A New Zealand industry group has applied for orange roughy, a deep sea species, to undergo assessment by the MCS despite opposition from conservationists.
WWF, one of the founders of the MSC, is among the conservation groups expressing deep reservations about the application for certification of orange rough fisheries as sustainable. It regards the species as being at “extremely high risk” of being overfished.
It believes, moreover, that there are serious doubts the species has recovered enough to be fished commercially and even if it has, the WWF considers the method by which they are caught to be highly destructive to the seabed and ecosystem.
Overfishing over the last 35 years left orange roughy in a precarious position with many stocks collapsing, including the European and all seven New Zealand populations. The fish, like many other deep sea species, are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because they are slow to mature.
New Zealand’s stocks of orange roughy, Hoplostethus atlanticus, were heavily overfished in the 1980s and 1990s, with some population groups rapidly reduced to less than ten per cent of their original size.
Restrictions on catch levels, and in some areas total bans on fishing for orange roughy, reduced the pressure on the species but the extent to which they have recovered and can tolerate further trawls remains, said WWF-New Zealand, uncertain.
The Deepwater Group, an organisation set up to represent the deep water fishing industry in New Zealand, is now seeking certification of sustainability for three orange roughy fisheries in the region.
It believes the fish has bounced back sufficiently to justify classifying the catches as sustainable and it wants the added cache of the distinction MSC logo.
The application, the first for the species and described by the MCS as a "brave move", is likely to take about a year to complete, with a third-party team of experts being called in to carry out the assessment. However, very few applications for MSC certification fail this stage – most of the weaker cases are dropped during the pre-application process.
WWF condemned the move as premature and potentially extremely damaging because of uncertainties over the number of the fish and the damage that is done to the seabed in catching it.
The fish are caught using trawls that drag over the seabed and it is carried out primarily on seamounts, underwater mountains that boast high levels of biodiversity.
“Orange roughy stocks are relatively unproductive, highly susceptible to overfishing and slow to recover from over-exploitation,” the WWF said in a statement to Fish2fork.
“WWF has serious concerns about the certification of the New Zealand orange roughy fishery because, based on our analysis of the current evidence, the stocks in question have been overfished and significant doubt exists as to whether they have adequately recovered.
“The state of the fish stocks is not the only issue of concern. The impact of the fishing methods on habitats and species is also critically important. Orange roughy fisheries drag huge nets along the sea floor (bottom trawling) which is extremely harmful to the whole ecosystem functioning and its biodiversity.
“Their tendency to aggregate over seamounts and other topologically complex features means that the most common method of harvesting orange roughy (with bottom trawl) has great potential to disrupt biologically diverse and structurally complex deep-sea habitats.”
The WWF added: “We are concerned that expansion of this fishery will likely increase the footprint of the trawling in the future when the fishing companies are searching for better fishing grounds to supply the market. This implies a risk that more vulnerable marine ecosystems such as habitat forming deep sea corals and sponges could be destroyed with an irreversible long-term effect on the ecosystem.”
The organisation said it still has faith in the MSC system but warned that its doubts about the stocks’ sustainability must be answered with solid evidence. Failure to do so would “likely undermine consumer trust and NGO support for the MSC certification system”.
MSC certification of New Zealand’s hoki, another deep water species, was widely condemned by conservation groups and was the subject of formal objections in 2001 and 2006.
Groups like Bloom, based in France, have been strongly critical of all deep sea fishing and its founder, Claire Nouvian, was co-author of a paper published in the journal Biological Conservation in 2013 which accused the MSC’s certification process of being too weak, especially when dealing with bottom trawling.
“Contrary to MSC claims, MSC-certified fisheries are not all sustainable, and certified fisheries are also not necessarily improving,” the authors wrote. “Most forms of bottom trawling are unsustainable because the gear is indiscriminate and causes significant damage to the life and structure on the seafloor.”
George Clement, chief executive of Deepwater, said considerable efforts have been made in recent years to improve the health of orange roughy stocks in New Zealand waters, including during the early stages of the MSC process.
“The industry has taken the lead in closing orange roughy fisheries that needed to be rebuilt, in developing new methodologies for biomass surveys, in developing stock assessments and implementing sustainable harvest strategies,” he said.
Earlier this month Nathan Guy, the Minister for Primary Industries in New Zealand, said the latest information showed that orange rough stocks “have fully rebuilt in certain areas”. He increased the total allowable catch for two fisheries but reduced it for a third.
Picture: orange roughy. Credit: © C. Nouvian-BLOOM Association