As a New Zealand industrial factory trawler fleet again arrives in Australian waters off Tasmania to target our conservation-listed orange roughy stocks, the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) says disturbing new research should see the fleet sent back.
The orange roughy stock is managed by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority as if they mature and breed at 27-32 years of age. But new evidence from New Zealand orange roughy fishery management estimates it takes at least 70-80 years for orange roughy to fully mature and spawn.
The age at which fish breed is considered to have profound implications for how fishing can be sustainably managed.
Adrian Meder, AMCS’s sustainable fisheries manager said: “This new evidence, coupled with a series of recent studies showing that orange roughy trawl fishing can completely destroy deep sea coral reefs, and that recovery from these impacts may take decades to centuries to occur, has not been incorporated in any meaningful way into the management of this season’s orange roughy fishery.
“If the science is correct, we’ve just invited New Zealand based boats and crews to catch these fish, do decades-lasting damage to our diminished orange roughy stocks and our deep sea coral reefs, and ship almost all their catch straight to the US and Europe.
“This risks leaving our kids to clean up a mess that is delivering minimal jobs and economic benefit and not even much seafood for Australians. This is not the time to treat our oceans like it’s the 1980s all over again, and we can do so much better than this.”
Mr Meder urged AFMA to take account of the latest science immediately and ensure no further damage is done to Australian orange roughy stock and the delicate habitats where they are caught.
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 New Zealand research.
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.