A new unpublished stock assessment for the vulnerable orange roughy fish has found there are significantly fewer than previously thought, and yet catch levels will not be reduced to levels recommended by science.
The data shows the stock of the long-lived, deep sea species, which can still be fished in approved Commonwealth fisheries thanks to a loophole in Australia’s environment laws, has been revised downwards to 30% of unfished levels, down from 34% at the previous stock assessment in 2017.
The stock assessment science recommended the catch be reduced to 670 tonnes for the next three years, but Australian fishery managers have decided to set the catch at 1074 tonnes for the 2022/23 season, which risks plunging the stock back into crisis, the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) says.
The Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) Commission, which makes decisions on the amounts of fish that can be caught in Australian waters, have set catch limits which will only reduce the orange roughy catch to 950 tonnes by the 2024/25 season.
“Allowing more fishing than the science recommends is a recipe for disaster for this species,” said AMCS sustainable seafood program manager Adrian Meder.
“Recent research on the late breeding age of the New Zealand orange roughy and the damage done to the seamounts over which they congregate by trawlers shows that Australian fishery managers should be taking a far more precautionary approach to managing the orange roughy stock.
“We understand that AFMA went to the Commission recommending the catch be set at 873 tonnes, but the industry representatives wanted the limit to be set at over 1000 tonnes, and they won. Industry are on the record as wanting to avoid giving the impression to their customers and the Australian public that anything is wrong with the stock.
“Of all the fisheries anywhere that you could think of where this lesson should have been learned long ago, surely the case of Australian orange roughy fisheries would be it?
“This is a fishery where the mistakes of 30 years ago will still resonate 40 years from now. Even under the most optimistic – and now abandoned – predictions of the last stock assessment from 2017, this fishery would not reach truly sustainable target levels until some time after 2070.
“Sadly, by ignoring the science, they will just kick this mess down to the next generation to deal with. We must treat our oceans better than this.”
Orange roughy are fished in two areas off Tasmania in the Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery (SESSF).
Orange roughy are thought to live for more than 200 years.
Orange roughy are caught by deep sea trawlers around south-eastern Australia. It is red listed in AMCS’s GoodFish Guide because of the impact of trawling on fragile ancient corals and because orange roughy is a protected species.
In Australia, the only orange roughy population thought to have recovered from historic overfishing in the mid-1990s, is predicted to go into a state of population decline for the next 25 years. This is because the historic overfishing resulted in a dip in recruitment, which refers to fish maturing enough to join the spawning aggregations which are targeted by trawlers. This ‘healthiest’ stock of orange roughy is currently only predicted to reach what are considered truly sustainable target levels some time after 2070.
However, even this prediction could be hugely out of date if the actual age at which orange roughy breed is much higher, as indicated by the recent research from New Zealand showing that they breed between the ages of 70 and 80 – fish of this age are almost totally absent from the current population, as a result of this past overfishing. AFMA manage the Australian stock as if they breed at 27-32 years of age.
In 2021, following a battle with AMCS and WWF-Australia, this fishery failed even the undemanding Marine Stewardship Council’s test of sustainability, failing to secure their eco-certification.
That meant they were not able to sell any orange roughy for the premium that certification attracts.