Orange Roughy: Activists Call for Restricted Trawling of Species After Breeding Age of 73 Revealed | Fishing

Ocean activists say a New Zealand fishing fleet fishing for orange roughy in waters off Tasmania should be ‘returned’ in light of new data on the vulnerable species.

The orange roughy is an endangered deep-sea species that under Australian environmental laws can still be caught in approved fisheries.

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) manages the orange roughy stock as if the fish reaches maturity and spawns between 27 and 32 years of age.

But activists say a new Evaluation of orange roughy in New Zealand suggests that the age could be much higher, which could have implications for the ability of populations to recover after fishing.

New Zealand Fisheries Management assessed populations in one of its orange roughy fisheries and found that spawning age was “surprisingly high” with only 50% of stocks spawning at 55.

The age at which 95% of the stocks reproduced was 73.3 years.

The concerns were raised as new environment minister Tanya Plibersek traveled to Lisbon for the UN ocean conference. Plibersek said she wanted Australia to take a global leadership role in protecting the oceans.

Sustainable fisheries manager at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, Adrian Meder, said the newly released data should prompt a “precautionary” response from AFMA, which is allowing orange roughy fishing licenses in two areas off Tasmania.

Vessels from New Zealand have started arriving in Tasmania and the AFMA said it had granted one boat permission to trawl the species this year.

“This has real implications for the ability of these fish populations to support industrial fishing,” Meder said.

“That means the fish are able to reproduce potentially much less during the years they’re in the ocean before we catch them.”

Meder said sustainable fishing practices generally try to ensure that fish populations have a chance to start replacing themselves before they are caught.

But he said AFMA had not incorporated the new data into its management of this season’s orange roughy fishery “in a meaningful way”.

“If the science is correct, we’ve just invited New Zealand-based boats and crew to catch these fish, cause lasting damage to our depleted orange roughy stocks and deep-sea coral reefs, and to ship almost all of their catch directly to the United States and Europe,” he said.

Karli Thomas, a New Zealand-based oceans advocate with the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, said deep-sea trawling puts fish and other species, including deep-sea corals, at risk.

She said the orange roughy was already a species known to be vulnerable and easily overexploited.

“If you look at the state of the stocks and the worrying science coming out of New Zealand, no country would let New Zealand trawlers into their country to fish for this species,” she said.

“It is going to be very urgent for other stocks to be assessed, because this information on the basics of a species’ life cycle has implications wherever it is fished.”

An AFMA spokesperson warned the data was specific to a stock of orange roughy on New Zealand’s east coast.

“There are often regional differences in the life history characteristics of fish stocks, so the results should not be taken as applicable to all other orange roughy stocks,” the spokesperson said.

They said there had been comprehensive data collection on orange roughy stocks in Australia since the 1990s and over many years this had shown that most of the fish that congregate to spawn were between 20 and 40 years old.

“The life history characteristics of fish stocks are regularly reviewed and, if necessary, updated,” they said.

Orange roughy in Australia has been managed as part of a rebuilding strategy since 2006 to allow populations to recover from historic overfishing.

Populations are managed as six stocks. Both stocks considered sustainable have catch limits in place. Directed fishing for the remaining four stocks is prohibited.

The AFMA spokesman said the authority had approved “a request for a New Zealand vessel to be considered an Australian vessel to fish for orange roughy on the Cascades plateau and east coast of Tasmania in 2022”.

They said it was subject to catch limits and would also ‘contribute to our understanding of these stocks by collecting important biological and acoustic data to inform future assessment models’.