Orange roughy – a ‘sustainable’ fish certification too far.
Orange roughy are easy to over fish. So, humans do. But that doesn’t seem to be stopping moves to re-define them as ‘sustainable’ by the Marine Stewardship Council.
True, when we started fishing orange roughy we didn’t know that this slow-growing, long-lived, deep water fish was particularly susceptible. But now we definitely do. Orange roughy can live to a staggering 150 years old, and are at least 30 years old before they are mature enough to breed. To put that into context: there are probably orange roughy alive today that were born when Queen Victoria was on the throne, and they take about 10 times longer to mature than Atlantic cod.
Since orange roughy were renamed – from ‘slimeheads’ – to make them more marketably palatable, fishing for them has increased dramatically. Populations all around the globe have crashed as a result of overfishing, whilst stories of tonnes of ‘unwanted’ dead orange roughy being dumped back into the ocean have shocked anyone who has heard them. To make matters worse, orange roughy tend to live around seamounts, underwater mountains encrusted with ancient corals. To catch the fish, destructive bottom trawling nets are used on these sensitive (and often unique) environments. The end result is devastation of entire ecosystems, including centuries-old coral, and other threatened species.
So you might be shocked to know that a New Zealand orange roughy fishery has been assessed as suitable for branding as ‘sustainable’ by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
We certainly were: which is why we (and a bunch of other NGOs, including WWF, Bloom and the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition) have objected in the strongest possible terms (although sadly the process for objecting on these assessments is fundamentally flawed, and a privilege we have to pay for!)
There are three basic principles underlying MSC certifications. We think the Orange roughy fishery fails spectacularly on all three.
Principle 1: Sustainable target fish stocks
A fishery must be conducted in a manner that does not lead to over-fishing or depletion of the exploited populations and, for those populations that are depleted, the fishery must be conducted in a manner that demonstrably leads to their recovery.
Such slow-growing fish cannot be harvested regularly, as we have seen from their populations crashing once fished. Unlike more resilient fish species, orange roughy numbers do not rebound quickly, especially when a ‘generation’ is in excess of 30 years!
Not a lot is known about how well orange roughy reproduce so making guesstimates on how many can be caught is even more problematic than usual. It’s certainly not a precautionary approach.
The orange roughy fish stocks being assessed are depleted or at low levels, and to rebuild them to target levels by MSC’s own standards is supposed to happen within 30 years or 3 times its generation time (whichever is shorter): which doesn’t seem possible if that generation time is over 30 years…
In short – populations are already depleted, all of the information is highly uncertain and recovery in MSC terms is impossible to guarantee.
Principle 2: Environmental impact of fishing
Fishing operations should allow for the maintenance of the structure, productivity, function and diversity of the ecosystem (including habitat and associated dependent and ecologically related species) on which the fishery depends.
Orange roughy live in complex and often unique deep sea ecosystems around seamounts – bottom trawling for orange roughy not only causes bycatch of other species, but also trashes ancient corals and wrecks entire habitats in the process.
Bycatch in orange roughy trawl fisheries includes some poorly-understood deep sea sharks, threatened albatrosses and other bird species, fur seals, and supposedly ‘protected coral’ species.
The seamount habitats themselves are often complex and hugely specialised ecosystems which have taken thousands of years to form, and can be annihilated by bottom trawling.
Principle 3: Effective management
The fishery is subject to an effective management system that respects local, national and international laws and standards and incorporates institutional and operational frameworks that require the use of the resource to be responsible and sustainable.
With no explicit ‘precautionary approach’ in New Zealand fisheries, that’s able to deal with delicate habitats or easy-to-overfish target species, the orange roughy fishery is cannot be considered ‘well-managed’.
The orange roughy population assessments are highly uncertain, most of the studies we need to assess bycatch impacts simply have not been done, and observer coverage on fishing vessels to monitor any bycatch is very variable.
On top of that, reports of large scale dumping of orange roughy and massive underreporting of fish catches in New Zealand waters stretching back decades mean that this fishery has a long way to go before it can be considered well-managed.
I’m no cheerleader for the Marine Stewardship Council, by any stretch. It’s really unfortunate for well-meaning consumers, but it’s not the Gold Standard of sustainability it claims to be. Some of its ‘certified sustainable species’ are downright bewildering – and mean that fish caught with bycatch of seals, using destructive fishing methods, undergoing massive stock declines, and even now plankton, carry the ‘blue tick’.
But orange roughy, the poster fish for ‘unsustainability’, must surely be a certification too far?