Fish and Friends

Photo by Barry Chapman SMH ©2013 Fairfax Mdia

Photo by Barry Chapman SMH ©2012 Fairfax Media

A Fish needs Friends
Has science helped to find a habitat, only to lose a species? How much responsibility does Australian science bear for the demise of the Orange Roughy?


Seventy years ago, Hemingway described great herds of animals foraging and migrating across the African plains. He, of course, was there to hunt big game for a trophy. With the exception of tiny, and ever-diminishing game parks, modern travellers to that continent scarcely see roadkill much less a live animal.

Here in Australia, the often harsh and unforgiving geography deludes us into believing that everything about this land is tough and enduring. But, it is easy to forget that natural ecosystems which have evolved to deal with this stubborn land, are for the most part, poised on a knife edge. One slip (or push) and the struggling plant or the endangered animal is gone. Forever.

Often, the average Australian is blissfully unaware of how precarious is the existence of a species, much less that it’s endangered. Take the Orange Roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus), a small fish scarcely more than 30cm long, weighing perhaps 1.5kg. Long promoted as a delicacy and touted as New Zealand’s most valuable export species, this fish can live for more than 100 years. Such longevity comes at a price, though, since they don’t breed until they are 25 or 30 years old. Slow maturing creatures with low reproductive rates are a poor match for modern, mechanised fishing methods.

In December 2007, the Australian government closed the South Tasman Rise fishery (off Tasmania) to commercial fishing of Orange Roughy and the species was added to Australia’s list of threatened species, where it remains today. In just ten years, from 1997 to 2007, supposedly “sustainable fisheries management” – much touted by industry and government – had brought this species to the brink. Fishermen had trawled for the delicacy elsewhere in our hemisphere before 1997, so what happened to open up this remote part of the Southern Ocean to such rapid and unsustainable exploitation?

At the time, the finger was pointed at illegal, foreign boats plundering our territorial waters, but the real culprit may be closer to home. In 1997, a remarkably detailed atlas of the seafloor topography (bathymetry) of the South Tasman Rise was released by the Australian government. The maps complemented a suite of extraordinary 3D images of the seafloor recorded in 1994 by AGSO (now Geoscience Australia) with the latest marine imaging equipment.

Australian scientists aboard the MV L’Atalante (of which I was one) had spent months scanning the ocean floor to reveal previously unknown canyons, cliffs and seamounts rising up from the abyssal depths. By their very anonymity, these seamounts had long protected the Orange Roughy and its habitat. Now, they could be located with frightening ease using the precision of modern GPS and multi-beam echo sounders.

Previously, fishing boats simply relied on rudimentary depth soundings, including some by Captain James Cook (yes, that one!), and sheer luck to find the seamounts that were home to the Orange Roughy. Not after that.

The shipboard scientists may have been profoundly concerned about the potential for over-fishing once the material was published. But, since the project’s aim was to define Australia’s “exclusive economic zone”, political and commercial interest won out over the welfare of an ugly orange fish that lacks the appeal of Nemo.

Perhaps if the Orange Roughy’s case had been argued better, to a wider public audience, things might have been different. Therein lies the dilemma. Scientists are frequently under multiple imperatives to publish their work – including for professional survival (publish or perish!) and to keep the public informed. But how often does it result in a case of publish and perish?

While Hemingway’s published words transcended his often profligate lifestyle, many of the animals he hunted have been pushed to the edge of extinction. Now, perhaps we should be asking what of value will we leave behind, when we’ve traded away a species like the Orange Roughy for project funding, primary authorship and an ISBN number?

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One thought on “Fish and Friends

  1. Yet another tragedy of our skewed economic system: if we had an economy (and a social system) that valued both the scientific knowledge and the ecosystem, and if we as a society had the wisdom to refrain from action until we knew all the likely consequences, this would not be happening.

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