Quality worth making room for
New Zealand seafood companies will no longer be able to export the bulk of their orange roughy to most North America and Europe markets, after relinquishing their Marine Stewardship Council label because of concerns over stock measurements.
Seafood NZ has self-suspended certification for orange roughy caught off the east and south Chatham Rise, as the biggest fishing company reports slower catches.
Sealord chief executive Doug Paulin says the company exports $20m of orange roughy a year, and US sales are a substantial part of that. It won’t be able to meet that demand with orange roughy from smaller certified fisheries. “At the end of the day, it’s not in our interest to continue to try and catch at a level that’s inappropriate for any fishery,” he tells Newsroom.
New Zealand trawls nine orange roughy fisheries in its territorial waters; only two of those now have certification.
According to Paulin, Sealord’s fishing crews were finding it took longer to catch their limits in spawning season than what modelling suggested should be the case. “What it’s about is how long it takes to catch their fish and the fact that outside of the spawn season, we were seeing less fish availability.”
That had cast doubt on the reliability of the modelling. According to the suspension notice, “insufficient and conflicting data” precluded the completion of a stock assessment.
The Marine Stewardship Council says orange roughy is found in similar deep sea habitats throughout the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, but it was discovery of New Zealand’s fisheries – and a big US marketing campaign – that brought orange roughy to the world’s attention as a culinary fish.
By the late 1980s nearly 90,000 tonnes of the fish were being caught globally, with 54,000 tonnes coming from New Zealand alone in 1989. According to one scientist, quoted by the Marine Stewardship Council, there was a gold rush mentality.
By the early 1990s it became clear to scientists that orange roughy were much less productive than first thought. New Zealand cut its annual catch allowance from 65,000 to 25,000 tonnes, but environmental agencies said orange roughy was proof that the fishing industry was reckless.
New Zealand developed new acoustic survey equipment to differentiate between different types of fish, and commissioned independent certifier MRAG Americas to ensure the fisheries met Marine Stewardship Council standards.
Catch limits were cut further to 17,000 tonnes, and slowly the fishery began recovering.
Fisheries minister Rachel Brooking cut catch limits further in September, from 12,000 to 9000 tonnes for this coming year. This week, she welcomes the fishing firms’ self-suspension.
“The allowable catch limits have been reduced but obviously that’s only going to have an impact in this fishing year, which has only just started in October,” she tells Newsroom.
“We want to see what this cut achieves this year, and what the fishery scientists say after this season of fishing. It’s really important to look at what the results are.”
The two big New Zealand supermarket chains refused last night to rule out stocking uncertified orange roughy. And Paulin insists customers can continue to purchase orange roughy with confidence “regardless of Marine Stewardship Council certification”.
But Brooking says she “appreciates” retailers like restaurants that serve only seafood that’s certified sustainable.
“It’s always an option for consumers who are particularly concerned about sustainability to look at these additional labelling services. But we do try and manage our fish stocks so they are sustainable, under the under the Fisheries Act and the quote management system.”
Orange roughy is caught with bottom trawls, generally between 800 to 1200 metres deep, around the perimeter of seamounts.
That’s controversial. Sealord acknowledges fishing on untouched seamounts could result in damage to corals and sponges that would take years to recover. It says only 15 seamounts in New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone have ever been bottom trawled.
New Zealand is the only country in the South Pacific that allows trawling on seamounts, and there are calls in international forums for a complete ban.
Sealord has 37 percent of New Zealand’s orange roughy quota. And environmental groups say orange roughy caught off the east and south Chatham Rise amounts to around 80 percent of the New Zealand catch.
Losing the sustainability label is critical to the industry: it’s a key selling point for consumers in the US which takes more than half New Zealand orange roughy exports.  
“The orange roughy fishery has lost its certification for a number of reasons, one of them being that the New Zealand government has withdrawn its stock assessment for this fishery, as it was shown to be wrong,” says Barry Weeber of ECO, a member of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.
“What was supposed to be a booming fishery was not, with catch rates declining and fish missing or much reduced from major spawning areas. There was just not the fish there to support this.” 
He is especially critical of trawling around the seamounts. “The corals and sponges and other creatures that live on the bottom get dragged up and destroyed. And those seamounts tend to be the areas where the roughy spawn – they basically get wiped out and they don’t come back to those features.”
He is calling on consumers to vote with their wallets, and not buy orange roughy.
Seafood NZ chief executive Dr Jeremy Helson says the industry supports taking time to gather more data. “Although the minister reduced catch limits further than we would have liked, the fishers we represent support a precautionary approach. We believe that caution is best, but what we seem to have here is a data issue, which is producing uncertainty for scientists and the minister.”
Doug Paulin says the east and south Chatham Rise fishery made up about half of Sealord’s orange roughy catch last year. It will continue fishing the area, within its reduced catch limits, but will send the uncertified fish to markets like China, instead of North America and Europe.
The sustainability certification has been a positive development, he agrees, and is a requirement for North America and Europe, stated in their policies.
So it will divert fish from the two remaining sustainably certified fisheries to the US, offsetting the reductions from the Chatham Rise fishery. That means the net impact on its revenues should be less than $100,000 this coming year, which Paulin says is “insignificant” in the context of the company’s total revenues of more than $500m.
“Our distributors will decide which customers they supply,” he adds. “And no doubt they’ll prioritise that based on where they get the best returns. It may well be that some of the low-returning customers don’t receive orange roughy, and they’ll replace it with another white fish.
“And we’re working hard to make sure we get the Marine Stewardship Council certification back.
“It’s a well-liked fish. And as long as you manage it sustainably, there’s no reason that it can’t be a specie that can be supplied forever.”
Aaron Irving, who represents deepwater fishing firms, says they currently don’t believe there’s a sustainability issue. “But we want to be certain, just as the regulator does, so we are calling for more science to give us more certainty and enable robust decision-making.”
Fishing firms have developed a time-bound and transparent fisheries improvement plan for the East and South Chatham Rise orange roughy fishery, he says, which will be posted up on the Stewardship Council website shortly. “This will reassure our stakeholders that this self-suspension and associated active work plan is underway to enable the orange roughy recertification as soon as possible.”
Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.
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