The last great wilderness…

NOAA Ocean Explorer: NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer: INDEX 2010 ÒInd


“The next deepwater boom was the one that first triggered an alarm in terms of the environmental price tag attached to these high-seas fishing bonanzas. This time it was a fish called a slimehead. Never heard of it? How about the more appetizing name the industry gave this creature once it realized the tremendous market that was waiting for it?

Orange roughy.

Now, there’s a catchy name, one that would stand out on fancy fish house menus. Which it did, beginning in the early 1980s, when the Soviets, along with the New Zealanders, began swarming a range of underwater canyons and mountain peaks called the Chatham Rise, east of New Zealand. The Australians jumped in the game at about the same time by trawling the slopes of a seamount near Tasmania called Saint Helen’s Hill, all of them seeking this suddenly prized fish that could be found roughly a half mile below sea level.

There was nothing particularly extraordinary about this species they called orange roughy. Like so many deep-sea fish, it’s a pretty ugly creature–roundish, typically about a foot long, with large owl eyes, a perpetual frown, and a big, bony head. Its most striking characteristic–and the inspiration for its market name–is the bright orange shade of its scales.

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Its bland white flesh is essentially tasteless, but the highbrow restaurant industry had enormous success turning orange roughy into the ‘it’ fish of the late 1980s and early ’90s. Any chef with some skill and imagination could take the blank palette of an orange roughy fillet and turn it into a high-priced special of the day. Grilled lemon-lime herb orange roughy. Orange roughy Malienne. Pineapple-glazed orange roughy. Orange roughy amandine. The possibilities were endless…

A decade later, by the early 2000s, the orange roughy boom, like the armorhead boom before it, went bust. The annual catch plummeted to less than fourteen thousand tons. Once again, the industry responded by shrugging its collective shoulders and moving on to probe the high seas for the next big thing.

But this time, in the trawlers’ wake came the scientists, who were interested not only in the effects of the fishing industry on the deep-sea species of fish they were netting, but also in the effects of the trawling on the seamounts themselves. They wanted to know what it was doing to the cold-water corals and other deepwater fauna that provide the habitat for these delicate, slow-growing fish.

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The scientists, after decades of study, already knew about the fragility of deepwater fish themselves, and of their habitat. They had learned that at the extremely cold temperatures and extremely high water pressures found in the great depths of the high seas, everything about the life-forms is slowed down. The greater the depth, the more otherworldly the life-forms become: humpbacked sharks with eyes that glow like headlights, tripod fish that stand on their fins like circus clowns walking on stilts, single-celled protozoans twice the size of a silver dollar. To the scientists, every one of these deep-sea creatures is worth a lifetime of study. But to the commercial fishing industry, the only feature that matters is the creatures’ marketability. They couldn’t care less that the average life span of an orange roughy is close to a century. That some roughy live as long as 130 years or more. That leafscale gulper sharks live to the age of seventy. That the average Baird’s smooth-head’s life span is thirty-eight years. Or that all of these slow-growing, long-lived fish reach sexual maturity (the age at which they become able to reproduce) later than humans do. Some orange roughy and grenadiers, for example, can’t reproduce until age forty.

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I know it may sound wonkish to cite this list of statistics, but think about what these numbers mean in terms of the impact overfishing has on species that take so long to replace themselves. Remember, truly sustainable fishing is based on not removing the target species’ population at a faster rate than it can reproduce itself. When you pull out of the ocean a fish whose typical life span is longer than that of us humans and that, even when left alone, must wait decades before it is able to reproduce, it’s easy to see the devastating impact that fishing it has not only on the current population, but also on the genetic characteristics of its future generations–if there are any.

This is why sustainable fishing of deepwater species is almost impossible. It’s why those first deepwater booms went bust so quickly and so dramatically. And why it will take decades before those populations of armorheads and orange roughy can begin to rebuild–if indeed they are able to.” 

Oceana