Plenty more fish

Balancing sustainability and the needs of the fishing industry is a difficult task, as the case of the orange roughy highlights.
Fishermen, with the help of a crane, pull sardines onto a fishing boat using the purse seine .../ Credits: Reuters
At the height of the boom, trawlers queued up off St. Helen’s Hill, an underwater seamount near Tasmania, like cars at a McDonald’s drive-through at peak hour. With so many vessels fishing the spawning ground of the orange roughy, it meant up to 30 hours before a boat could take its shot, but the wait was worthwhile.

When the boat’s number finally came up, the skipper would steer for the main shot, dead center over the top of the Hill and down a chute on the other side, while the deckhands, or “deckies,” ran out the trawl net and otter boards from the stern. Such was the density of the spawning fish below that a single five- minute shot could bring up 50 tons or more.

When the net was winched in and the cod-end released, the deck would brim bright with the fading color of dying fish. After quickly storing them in ice, the crew would repeat the process until the holds were full and then return to port, where the fish would be filtered and frozen, ready for export.

“It was an unbelievable time,” recalls Reinhard “Fritz” Drenkhahn, who skippered the Imlay, a 20-meter, four-crew trawler. Tall tales of those days include deckies coming home after the season and paying cash for a new car or a house. “The towns were certainly buzzing, and skippers and deckies were flush with money,” says Drenkhahn. “It was like a gold rush.”

As the world’s fishing fleets have became more powerful in the last 40 years and laden with sophisticated fish-finding technology, populations of inshore fish species have been over-exploited. Many governments responded by introducing catch limits in their waters. Trawlers then moved away from continental shelves and into deeper waters looking for other stocks to harvest. One fish they found was the orange roughy.

Astounding bounty

Roughies, previously known as slimeheads, were rebranded after their brick-red color and tough scales by a New Zealand marketer, perhaps the same lateral thinker who turned “Chinese gooseberries” into “kiwi fruit.” With firm flesh that produces white, boneless fillets, the deep-sea species quickly became popular on dining tables in the United States and Japan. St. Helen’s Hill, the first spawning aggregation found in Australian waters, was fished from 1987, and the bounty was astounding.

“In the heyday, there were no real restrictions. It was pretty much open slather [season] and boats filled up in no time,” says Drenkhahn. “But the sheer density of the fish caused its own problems. The roughy is a boof-headed fish with tough scales, and nets were bursting under the weight of the catches.”

This, however, wasn’t the only problem. The Hill, as fishermen call it, was a “tragedy of the commons”, says Peter Trott, fisheries program manager with the World Wildlife Foundation in Australia. “At least in the early years,” he goes on to explain.

The Hill falls within Australia’s Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery. When the roughy breeding ground was discovered, little was known about the fish and less about the biomass (number) available to be fished. Estimates varied from 100,000 to a million tons. In 1990, the management quota of 12,000 tons was caught in three weeks and estimated at $23 million.

“Initial reports on the biomass amounted to [little more than]: ‘There is so much fish, you’ll never catch it.’ Unfortunately, that is an old adage that quickly proved to be false. It was an open fishery with good money to be made and very little control,” says Trott.

Inadequate surveillance systems tempted crews to file false reports about the size and location of their catch. By one assessment, the number landed in Hobart in 1993 was twice the official recorded catch.
“The attitude then by the government was one of, ‘Go for it, guys.’ Fishing was an industry to be developed and it wasn’t much about sustainability,” explains Trott.

Governments at the time provided policies to help exploit fisheries. These ranged from boat-building subsidies to exploratory fishing programs. While scientists urged caution, commenting that “very little catch is forgone by slow development of the fishery,” catch limits were often set without reference to scientific opinion. With research then only beginning, Trott says, “There was no real idea what damage was being done.”

It has since been revealed that the orange roughy has an extraordinary life span of up to 150 years. This, coupled with the fact that it is a slow-breeding species that begins reproducing at about 30 years of age, means the orange roughy is susceptible to overfishing.

Throughout the 1990s, changes were initiated, including limiting the total allowed catch and introducing licenses, but by then, says Trott, the damage had been done. In 2006, the Hill was closed to fishing and the orange roughy was listed as a conservation-dependent species, the first rung on the Australian conservation listings.

Counting the cost

Fritz Drenkhahn, also former head of the industry body the South East Trawl Fishing Industry Association, says at the peak there were 52 boats fishing the Hill. “Nothing can sustain that sort of pressure,” he acknowledges. But what fishermen didn’t like was the manner of the lockdown on their fishing.

“We knew when the catch rates went down that there was a problem, but you just can’t stop us dead. We told the government and scientists, ‘Work with us, because you need to keep the industry going, even at a reduced rate.’ Otherwise the infrastructure falls apart.”

In 2006, a buyout of permits took half of the 118 boats of the south-east fleet off the water. It devastated small towns, whose economies depended on the sea. Drenkhahn’s hometown of Eden, a small fishing village of 3,000 people, located equidistant from Sydney and Melbourne, went from 15 boats down to five, and the infrastructure declined with it.

“They tried to curtail it with one huge swipe, but then everything falls apart. If they opened the Hill today, there would be few boats around to fish it and no process to handle it. Most of the boats left are going broke,” he argues. “And the Hill was never even close to being fished out according to assessments we pushed for.”

“Have you ever tried to count fish?” asks Rudy Kloser. “It is quite a task.” One of the scientists charged with monitoring stocks of orange roughy, Kloser says recent surveys have shown large schools of fish at the Hill. “I am talking up to one kilometer long and a 100 meters high, so there are a lot of fish there. But that doesn’t tell you how many fish used to be there,” he explains.

Debate today circles the existing spawning biomass. The latest accepted assessment (2006) shows stocks at the Hill are still considered low, at around 16% relative to unfished levels, and the Hill remains closed. Australian fisheries have a limit reference of 20%. If the estimated stock size drops below that, the fishery closes for rebuilding. If it rises substantially, it could re-open for fishing.

“There are indicators that show it is recovering, but we cannot be certain of the rate and the level,” says Kloser. “If it is opened up, what are the management risks in the longer term? The full effects of the overfishing are not likely to be felt until after 2020, when most of the juvenile fish from those overfishing years reach maturity and return to breed.”

The tale of the orange roughy is a cautiously optimistic one. The species was heavily fished at a time when powerful trawlers were seeking an alternative to depleted inshore stocks, such as gemfish. Although regulation was initially unprepared and, at least in the fishing industry’s view, there was an overreaction, it seems the species is recovering and could provide a basis for a sustainable industry.

Elsewhere, the picture is not promising. Today, 414 species of fish are considered critically endangered, according to the “Red List” maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Another 486 fish species are endangered, 1,141 are vulnerable and 60 are extinct due to overfishing by the world’s 4.36 million fishing boats.

In its 2012 report on The State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said a third of fish stocks are overexploited and 57% are fully exploited. The 2012 report notes that its analysis suggests “a global system that is overstressed, reducing in biodiversity and in imminent danger of collapse.”

Read more on Project M online.

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