Environment News: Deep Issues

MOST of the effort we put in on supporting the conservation of fish species is directed towards fish we know and love to target, that is those living close and accessible to our coastline. We’ve constantly lobbied for a removal of commercial netting in all of our estuaries, bottom trawling over fragile inshore grounds, indiscriminate beach hauling and line and trap fishing which kills endangered species as by-catch.

This effort has been paralleled by our angling colleagues in much of the rest of the developed world. We have, however, not thought all that much about the impact of high seas deepwater trawling, other than when it impacts us directly. Now an international team of marine scientists is sounding alarm bells about the risk of shifting commercial fishing effort for inshore species onto deepwater targets.

In an article published in the journal Marine Policy, the team of authors led by Washington’s Marine Conservation Institute’s Dr Elliott Norse notes that trawlers displaced from coastal areas are now fishing in waters up to a mile deep. It uses a couple of case studies to illustrate what can happen when a good eating species is found and targeted, and one of those deals with the orange roughy, which was for a period during the 1980s and ’90s an extremely popular food fish in Australia and many other parts of the world.

Stocks were located and heavily exploited in New Zealand, Australia, the South West Indian Ocean, Chile and Ireland. Concerted fishing led to catch levels being dramatically reduced or the fisheries being closed altogether. So many fish were taken that many in Australia ended up being dumped in rubbish tips, with some ugly footage of this being shown on local current affairs programs about 15 years back.

Orange roughy take 30 years to reach sexual maturity and can live for 125 years. It doesn’t take much imagination to work out what effect targeting massive spawning aggregations of these fish can have on their chances of survival.

Deep water trawling continues internationally because high seas trawlers receive over $160 million each year in government subsidies … about 25 per cent of the catch value … to keep operating. The authors of the Marine Policy paper argue that economically wasteful deep sea fishery subsidies should cease, and that the funds should be redirected to help displaced fishermen and rebuild fish populations in more productive waters closer to ports and markets, locations more suitable to sustainable fishing.

It usually takes a crisis, such as the collapse of the east coast gemfish stocks, the region’s southern bluefin tuna population or eastern blue groper numbers, to spur governments and fisheries management agencies to dramatic action. But when they do, stocks can rebuild quite quickly. The USA has seen this happen with its east coast striped bass numbers. The lesson should be: don’t wait for a near-complete stock collapse, take note of rapid declines in catch rates, act proactively and quickly to remove non-sustainable commercial fishing methods … either inshore or on the high seas.

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