/ Environmental impact / How can orange roughy ever be considered a good fishery?

How can orange roughy ever be considered a good fishery?

Orange roughy
Rohan Currey on December 16, 2016 - 3:02 pm in Environmental impact, Improving fisheries, Ocean health, Sustainable seafood
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Dr Rohan Currey, the MSC’s fisheries standard director explains how the fortunes of the 1980’s ‘poster child of unsustainable fishing’ have turned.

On 8th December three fisheries, accounting for 60% of New Zealand’s orange roughy catch, achieved MSC certification. Some people believe it should never have happened. Given the fishery’s history, these views are understandable. However, the story of orange roughy is far from over.

How orange roughy’s fortunes changed

In the early 1990s New Zealand’s orange roughy fishers confronted a terrible reality. Researchers had discovered orange roughy live longer and reproduce far more slowly than previously thought. Populations were plummeting.

In response, the New Zealand government cut catches – at times to zero – and closed fishing grounds.

As stocks very slowly started to recover, the New Zealand government and quota holders invested in technology and science which might start allowing orange roughy to be fished responsibly.

The New Zealand government levied NZ$100 million (€67 million) for research and quota holders spent an additional NZ$35 million (€24 million).

Over more than 15 years they developed a state-of-the-art Acoustic Optical System and new stock assessment models, which now allow them to accurately count and age orange roughy. They also gathered more information on the marine environment inhabited by orange roughy.

After 15 years of hard work, orange roughy stocks in the certified fisheries have recovered.  The new catch limits are set at low levels, ensuring that stocks are maintained at sustainable levels.

History of orange roughy fishing

History of orange roughy fishing

Protecting corals

Orange roughy live in an iconic area of deep sea corals and sea mounts which require protection. MSC certification requires fisheries to demonstrate, through science and evidence, that they minimise impacts on marine ecosystems.

Black corals, gorgonian corals and stony corals are protected under the New Zealand Wildlife Act 1953.  Large areas are designated Benthic Protection Areas and Marine Protected Areas. These are closed to fishing. Further limitations on trawl areas are specifically designed to minimise impacts to corals.

The New Zealand government provides a comprehensive analysis of the overlap of the orange roughy fisheries  compared to observed and predicted distributions of protected coral species. The overlap between coral habitat and fishing area has been reduced substantially over the last 5 years.

Annually less than 0.03% of New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone is trawled for orange roughy and fishers return to the same areas each year.

Independent certifiers, MRAG Americas, found that these measures meet requirements of the MSC Fisheries Standard, but set conditions of certification which will require continued investment to ensure that the fisheries do not cause serious harm to corals.

Mammals and seabirds

Impacts on seabirds are extremely low. Between 2002 and 2012, records show that 46 seabirds were caught by the certified fishery. Between 2002 and 2012, they caught no marine mammals.

All fishing crews undergo environmental training to ensure that they can minimise the risks to seabirds and to marine mammals from fishing.

A rigorous assessment process

Assessment to the MSC Fisheries Standard is widely recognised as the most credible and robust independent analysis of the sustainability of a wild fishery. The certified orange roughy fishery has undergone two years of scrutiny by independent scientists to validate its sustainability.

MSC certified orange roughy fisherieMSC certified orange roughy fisherie

MSC certified orange roughy fisheries

Unlike other fish sustainability guides, MSC criteria for certification is fully transparent and available online. Assessments are carried out by independent certifiers who involve stakeholders and reports are checked by peer reviewers.

This is not the end of the story

Consumers can be confident that orange roughy caught by the certified fishery, and sold with the blue MSC label, comes from a well-managed and sustainable source.

Certification requires fisheries to meet a high bar of sustainability, but also incentivizes improvement where needed.

Other orange roughy stocks have yet to recover to the point where they can achieve MSC certification. For these fisheries, there is more work to do.

We should not get stuck in the past. We want fisheries to improve and we should recognise them when they do. Positive change means productive, healthy oceans.

Final thought: A note on long-lived species

Orange roughy live to 130 years old. For many this suggests that they cannot be harvested sustainably. This is not the case. As long as the management system accounts for the life history of the species they catch, fisheries can adjust the level of catch to ensure sustainability. In the case of orange roughy, the management approach includes ongoing surveys and research, regular evaluation of harvest control rules, and catch levels that take into account that this species reaches sexual maturity around age 20 and reproduces around age 32-40.

The MSC program considers the scientific evidence of environmental sustainability. Our mission is to safeguard seafood supplies and oceans. With the exception of a limited number of ‘out of scope’ activities (for example, the use of poison or explosives) MSC certification is open to all fisheries provided they can demonstrate they meet the sustainability criteria of the MSC Fisheries Standard.

Read the full MSC assessment report, including stakeholder comments, for the orange roughy fishery >

Read the story of New Zealand orange roughy >

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