orange roughy - only a mother could love 'em
Orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus) was first discovered to live in deep waters off Tasmania in the 1980s.
It is an orangeish red fish, reaching a length of slightly less than 50 cm. The skin is poisonous to humans and its oil is powerful enough to be used as a degreasing agent.
Orange roughy are a long-lived and slow growing species. They take 20 to 25 years to reach reproductive maturity. They live for 100 years or more - with good evidence of ages over 150 years.
The meat of orange roughy, although not very tasty, has been found to survive freezing and packing particularly well, and there is strong demand throughout the world for orange roughy processed in that way. It is often marketed as “sea perch”. Orange roughy attracted good prices in the early 1990s.
After initial minor catches, orange roughy was first commercially fished off Tasmania in significant quantities in 1989.
The fish were taken in greatest quantities whilst spawning during the winter months, and the major spawning site in Australian waters is located east of St Helens at an underwater feature known as the St Helens Hill. This is a 400 metre high pinnacle (or "sea mount") rising from a depth of 1000 meters. During spawning, the fish form a "donut" ring around the sea mount.
When aggregated, orange roughy can be taken in large quantities in a very short time. In the early 1990s, when the St Helens Hill area was first fished, fish were at times reported to enter nets at the rate of one tonne per second. At these times, the species concentration was such that almost no other species of fish were to be found with the orange roughy.
For the rest of the year, orange roughy are sparsely spread over large areas of deeper waters off southern Australia. There are some other areas where they are now known to aggregate (mostly outside Australian waters).
Catching these fish is technically challenging, as it requires trawling at great depth near a sea mount which can entangle gear - but once mastered, the rewards were large.
Many of those engaged in fishing orange roughy systematically and dramatically underdeclared their catches, so that they could continue fishing beyond the limits the regulators imposed. Often several truckloads of fish would go unreported for each boat trip. The quota system was rendered useless.
A large number of fishermen were caught at this and several were prosecuted, and some jailed. I spent long periods in Hobart in the late 1990s and early 2000s prosecuting these frauds in the Tasmanian courts.
But it was too late.
By the late 1990s - just a few years after the fishing commenced - orange roughy were commercially extinct in Australian waters and the commercial fishery had collapsed.
Because of the slow maturing rate and low reproduction rate of these fish, the stock will take an extremely long time to recover from overfishing.
Fishermen saw big profits with the orange roughy. Their fear was that if they did not overfish, others would, and they would lose their short term profit.
This pattern is all too familiar. We move from one species of fish to another as we deplete stocks, and cause untold damage to underwater biota.
There are countless other examples, including the once very plentiful cod, shark (or flake), and the recent failure of CITES to properly protect blue fin tuna - to say nothing about whales. These are all tragic losses, and an indictment of both the fishing industry, and the governments who should regulate the industry.
So don't order that sea perch if you see it on the menu: you are likely to consume an animal older than your grandmother. And let's try to choose sustainable fish.
At the political level, we need substantial "no catch" zones so that fish can have a chance to shelter and recover from fishing, and we also need to ensure that fishing regulations are properly enforced across the high seas, and not only within national fishing zones. The loss of fish stocks anywhere is a priceless loss to the planet we share.