One Question Quiz
A lot of these guys are not doing great. (Image: The Spinoff)
A lot of these guys are not doing great. (Image: The Spinoff)

KaiMay 20, 2024

How are the stocks of the fish on the iconic poster going? ‘Munted’, says one expert

A lot of these guys are not doing great. (Image: The Spinoff)
A lot of these guys are not doing great. (Image: The Spinoff)

Another technical answer: ‘no one really knows.’ 

It smells like hot fat and fish. You hug the warm bundle of newspaper, translucent with grease, swaddling it like a newborn babe. Behind the counter is a small child doing her homework, and the grumpiest Chinese lady in the world. Above you, the iconic New Zealand Commercial Fish Species poster, with all your familiar friends: the noble snapper, the demure whitebait, the dazzling trevally. 

The orange roughy gazes dolefully downwards. He is described by online search engines as “widespread”, “common”, and most importantly, “delicious”. He must be filleted perfectly, as consuming even a smidge of his skin causes explosive diarrhoea. He’s flaky and tasteless. He was renamed in the 1970s to be more marketable and promptly gobbled up by adoring fans. 

How are he and his friends on the poster doing, stock-wise? Not so good. How much not so good? As it turns out, we aren’t really sure.

“The key measure is the sustainability of our fisheries, and overall New Zealand’s fisheries are in good shape, as evidenced through our scientific stock assessments,” says Simon Lawrence, director of science and information at Fisheries New Zealand (a business unit at MPI).

That sounds great, but let’s hone in on our friend the orange roughy. Turns out, MPI’s orange roughy fisheries are in “good shape” the same way I’m in “good shape” until I get winded from eating a kebab too fast. MPI hasn’t been able to complete a full roughy roll call – or in fishery terms, a stock assessment – since 2018. And in hindsight, MPI says the 2018 assessment was “less robust than originally thought”. The information we do have shows that orange roughy are being eaten faster than they are having babies, and though fishing allowances have been adjusted accordingly, the species’ situation remains uncertain. 

Not doing so great (Image: Sealord)

For as much as Aotearoa prides itself as a progressive nature-loving island nation, our marine conservation is secretly ass. “Kiwis probably don’t know the lack of protection we have in New Zealand,” says Caitlin Owers from World Wildlife Fund. “Less than 1% of our ocean is in marine protection areas. We’re tied for last place with China and Russia. We used to be world-leading in terms of establishing marine reserves, but that’s petered out, and now we have a shocking lack of protection.”

Orange roughy are a slow-growing species from the seabed, known to live 120-130 years, attaining a maximum age of 230. When we eat them up, they don’t replenish quickly. Most of our fish are exported to other countries anyway – very little is eaten domestically. Since the quota management system was created in the 1980s to control fish stocks, many of our commercial species have been overfished and depleted, declining by more than 80%. Orange roughy have been poorly managed under this system ever since its creation. 

A lot of our fisheries management decision-making is based on reporting. Boats provide data based on what they’re catching and discarding. As of last year, New Zealand trialled putting cameras on boats, and some very large fibs were revealed.

With the rollout of cameras on boats, the early results show dramatic underreporting on a bunch of different metrics. Kayla Kingdon-Bebb, CEO of WWF, is not surprised. “It’s something that we were expecting,” she says. “The observer effect is a thing, and when people know they’re being watched, they are more likely to be honest. But the figures themselves are very stark.”

She rattles off a list of horrible numbers. There was a 680% increase in the reporting of dolphins being caught and killed. Fishers also reported a 350% increase in interactions with seabirds and the gear on deck, where birds were either caught or killed. The amount of bycatch (extra animals caught by accident) was up massively, and discards – the fish they caught, left to die, and chucked back overboard – shot up by 210%. 

Kingdon-Bebb’s question is simple. “If we’re basing our fishing management decisions off bad data, because it’s been so chronically underreported, what does that say about the levels we’ve set our total annual catch at?”

Kayla Kingdon-Bebb of WWF. (Photo: supplied)

While Kingdon-Bebb always expected underreporting on boats, what concerns her most is  fisheries minister Shane Jones’ response. He has openly considered trying to stop the camera program, or roll it back, or defund it. “I think the data that’s come out of that early reporting is testament to how important that program is. Not just because it’s allowing the industry to be transparent but it’s also going to improve New Zealand’s fisheries management decisions.”

Geoff Keey, marine and fisheries specialist at Forest & Bird, reckons that while the big commercial fisheries do stock assessments, the smaller fisheries sometimes don’t bother. “It’s a little touch and go. Some have to guesstimate, and others have no idea. Some fisheries don’t fill out their paperwork, some only do partial. And when were they last assessed? In a number of fisheries, the answer will be: no one really knows.”

MPI says that where science information is unavailable, they’ll gather information from sources such as iwi, recreational fishing, environmental interests, and other governmental agencies, to name a few. Trends in catch or catch levels are also used as an indicator of the need for management action. This is called a “catch per unit” effort: you try to estimate the fish in the sea based on how hard it is to catch. 

Sometimes this method is reliable, but Keey doesn’t particularly trust it. Time and time again, ever since the first orange roughy fishery was opened, their estimates have been wrong. “Problem is, sometimes fishers get better at catching fish,” Keey says. “Other times, they have bad years. It could look like the population’s going up, but they’re actually just getting better at finding the fish. It’s not a great way, but sometimes it’s the only way there is.”

It’s bloody hard to know what’s going on in the ocean. It’s big, scary, and wet. Te Papa’s colossal squid alone should deter anyone from ever going there. Our marine territory is one of the largest in the world, 15 times bigger than our landmass. Experts estimate that up to 80% of our endemic biodiversity can be found in the ocean, heaps of which remains unknown to science, because marine research is difficult and expensive.

Fisheries aim for “perpetuity”, meaning yoinking most of the fish but leaving a minimum of 30% to reproduce and eat all over again. This is called a total allowable catch. What it means in practice is that we are edging the fish as much as possible. “Total [allowable] catch is set at a level to provide for maximum sustainable yield. It’s a pretty arbitrary number, to be honest,” Kingdon-Bebb says. “It doesn’t set us up for abundance. It doesn’t set us up for recreational fishers, or people who are fishing on a subsistence basis, to be able to pop out on the end of a wharf and feed their family.” Nor, she adds, does it guarantee enough fish for native species to feed on, or climate abundance. “So something in my opinion really untoward is going on in the southern ocean.”

Sea Lion Pup Cuddling with Mom at Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands
Fishing doesn’t just hurt fish, it also hurts other marine life. (Photo: Getty)

The point is, perpetuity is not the same as thriving. For us humans, it could mean no recreational fishing; for many animals, it means death. Kingdon-Bebb describes to me dying seabirds and the southern squid trawl fishery, or SQU 6T, a boat which haunts subantarctic Aotearoa in search of inky cephalopods. Squid were caught, but sea lion pups from the Auckland Islands were tangled in nets or starved to death as a consequence. MPI recently removed the mortality limit which aims to avoid, remedy, or mitigate the effect of fishing-related deaths on Auckland Island sea lions, stating that it wasn’t very useful anyway. 

To Kingdon-Bebb, that says the picture of our ocean is complex, but concerning. “We have to ask ourselves whether the amount of fish biomass we’re extracting in commercial fisheries is really sustainable or if we’re having such an impact on the health of the southern ocean that it’s now manifesting in declining rates of native species, like sea lions and seals, that depends on those fish stocks to survive. Are we starving them to death?”

Well, are we? Nobody actually knows to what extent fisheries can coexist with nature. No research has ever been funded, says Keey. “The best technical way to describe it is ‘munted’,” he says. “It’s all well if we hoover out half the fish in the sea, but then you have to ask, what about the rest of the ecosystem? Everything in the sea eats everything else. If we take everything out, someone else is probably not getting a feed.”

Orange roughy is fished exclusively by bottom trawling. This is nothing new. Over half of our fishing relies on us dragging nets across the seabed, completely trashing entire ecosystems. That’s less likely to be the stuff you see in your fish and chips, but rather export fishery. The industry argues – and it’s a rather grim argument – that they mostly fish with bottom trawling in places they’ve fished before, so there’s nothing left to destroy anyway. 

Still, we’re insistently gobbling up orange roughy where possible. New Zealand has the biggest orange roughy fisheries in the world, with a total catch of over 8,500 tonnes in 2014. Kingdon-Bebb was shocked, on her recent West Coast trip, to find every restaurant serving orange roughy as fish of the day. It’s hard for her to imagine why it’s even eaten by humans. Ages ago, people said there’d be no market: it’s unsustainable, it’s flavourless, it can make you shit your pants.

MPI, meanwhile, has made catch reductions to a portion of the orange roughy population while they figure out what’s going on. Around $23 million is invested in fisheries science each year. About half of that cost is used for stock assessments and research on commercially caught species. The other half is allocated to research on other species and the aquatic environment, including the effects of climate change and crazy weather events. 

Big Snapper swimming around at Goat Island, New Zealand
A snapper, also not doing great. (Photo: Getty)

MPI promises that the quota management system will provide sustainable fisheries. Kingdon-Bebb beefs. “The quota management system is not set up for conservation or long-term resilience to climate change, or even abundance,” she says. “It’s set up to maximise commercial extraction.”

Keey agrees that MPI has an inherent conflict in the way it is set up. “I have a lot of respect and trust in the people who work there … but they have an inherent tension in an agency that’s meant to both regulate fishing and promote exports,” he says. “It’s not a question of whether the people have integrity, but the agency trying to juggle these very competing priorities.”

Lots of New Zealanders do care about sustainability, and where their seafood comes from. We pride ourselves on our unique nature and relationship with the ocean, but there’s not widespread knowledge about how far our protection has fallen. You can’t make a change if you don’t know about it. 

Kingdon-Bebb believes it’s possible to have the most transparent, sustainable fisheries industry on the planet if we want. “If [fisheries] decide to go down that path, they can command a price premium for it and market advantage, because globally that’s where consumers are going,” she says. “Increasingly, our consumers want sustainably improved products, whether it be yoghurts with low environmental footprints or seafood that doesn’t interact with Māui dolphins. It would be great if the government could help the industry adjust to that.”

For consumers – who are guilted for using straws while big fisheries trawl seabeds to death – transparency from fisheries is paramount so average people can vote with their wallets. If we don’t eat orange roughy, there won’t be a market for it anymore. Things seem gloomy, but the planet always recovers, if we give it a chance. Remember those videos from lockdown, of dolphins frolicking in Venetian canals? Remember the tui and kererū chilling outside your window? Orange roughy has been through a lot. Let’s let him chill. 

Solution? Eat something else instead. Snapper maybe? Oh, wait…

Correction: This article previously referred to “total allowance catch” rather than “total allowable catch”. 

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