Govt stands by NZ record on deep-sea fishing

LOIS CAIRNS
Last updated 05:00 11/09/2011
Orange roughy was fished extensively in the 80s and 90s.
AMBER SIGNAL: Orange roughy was fished extensively in the 80s and 90s.

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The Government is defending its fisheries management system amid calls for industrial deep-sea fishing to be banned because it has depleted stocks that take longer to recover than other species.

In an online paper published in the scientific journal Marine Policy, a team of international marine scientists argues the world has turned to deep-sea fishing "out of desperation" without realising fish stocks there take much longer to recover.

"The deep sea is the world's worst place to catch fish," said Elliott Norse, the paper's lead author and president of the Marine Conservation Institute. "Deep-sea fish are especially vulnerable as they can't repopulate quickly."

Since the 1970s, when coastal fisheries were overexploited, commercial fishing fleets have moved further offshore and into deeper waters. Some now fish more than 1.6km deep. The marine scientists argue that fishing at that level, especially bottom trawling, causes profound, lasting damage to fish and other seafloor life, such as corals.

In their paper the scientists document the collapse of many deep-sea fish, including sharks and orange roughy.

"Fishing for orange roughy started in New Zealand and grew rapidly through the 1980s and 1990s. However, most of the fisheries were overexploited and catch levels have either been dramatically reduced or the fisheries closed all together," said Dr Malcolm Clark, a New Zealand-based fisheries biologist, who helped write the paper. "The same pattern has been repeated in Australia, Namibia, the South West Indian Ocean, Chile and Ireland. It demonstrates how vulnerable deep-sea fish species can be to overfishing and potential stock collapse."

Australia declared orange roughy a threatened species in 2006. The species takes 30 years to reach sexual maturity and can live up to 125 years.

The scientists say there are very few exceptions to unsustainable deep-sea fisheries around the world. One is the Azores fishery for black scabbardfish. There, the Portuguese government has banned bottom trawling, which overfished black scabbardfish elsewhere.

Azores fish are caught sustainably with hook and line gear from small boats. "Deep-sea fisheries can be sustainable only where the fish population grows quickly and fisheries are small-scale and use gear that doesn't destroy fish habitat," Norse said.

Fisheries Minister Phil Heatley said he had not seen the scientists' full report but he would get his officials to evaluate the arguments put forward and advise him on whether there was a case for reviewing the legislation governing fishing here.

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He said fish stocks were closely monitored and our fisheries management – in particular our Quota Management System – was recognised as being among the best in the world.

Deep-water stocks were routinely monitored.

"Unlike many other countries, we also have the courage to close fisheries when stocks fall to low levels in order to rebuild them at the fastest possible rate. Fisheries that are closed are not re-opened until it can be demonstrated that they have rebuilt to a specified level," Heatley said. This had already resulted in the reopening of the Challenger orange roughy fishery last year, after it was closed in 2000.

- Sunday Star Times

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