Caution is best for orange roughy

24 November 2023

You may recall from the 28 July Update that Seafood New Zealand recommended to Fisheries New Zealand that the catch limit in the East and South Chatham Rise orange roughy fishery be reduced, as a precautionary approach. This was because NIWA was unable to fit the recent age data into a stock assessment model, so the assessment could not be completed this year.

Without an assessment, caution is always best. We are committed to ensuring healthy, abundant fisheries are here to stay, and we need the best available science to inform fisheries management decisions.

The issue before the East and South Chatham Rise orange roughy fishery is not a sustainability issue but a data issue – stock levels have been consistent for the past 12 years – but we want to be certain, just as the regulator does. The Minister of Oceans and Fisheries, Hon Rachel Brooking, reduced the commercial catch allowance in September by 40% to reflect the uncertainty.

This week we have gone a step further and self-suspended the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certificate for the East and South Chatham Rise fishery – not because of stock level concerns, but because the MSC standard requires there to be a stock assessment. The MSC is an independent international NGO, setting science-based standards for ecosystem-based fisheries management to provide assurance of sustainability within the seafood supply chain.

We have suspended our MSC certificate for this one fishery until the requisite data and information is collected, and until a stock assessment is completed.

In the meantime, we have developed a timebound and transparent MSC Fisheries Improvement Plan (FIP) for the fishery. The FIP is featured on the same MSC B2B website as MSC certified fish, and enables customers to see sustainability scores, see exactly what is required to re-achieve certified status, and follow our progress.

Meanwhile, we urge the Minister and the regulator to prioritise the stock assessment, so that we can lift the suspension.

Orange roughy remains on the table

New Zealanders and international lovers of orange roughy – admired for its mild ‘less fishy’ flavour – will still be able to buy New Zealand-caught orange roughy. Two orange roughy fisheries are MSC certified – the Northwest Chatham Rise fishery and the Challenger fishery. And, having an MSC FIP for the East and South Chatham Rise still enables us to export orange roughy, while orange roughy for Kiwis shouldn’t be affected.

Is this anything to do with seamounts?

No, seamounts are not fished for orange roughy on the Chatham Rise. Most of the fishing occurs on the same grounds that have been sustainably bottom trawled for decades, on areas of flat ground and over parts of small features such as underwater hills and knolls. Given the changes in fishing operations, an increasing proportion of the catch is now being taken from areas of flat ground and fewer tows are occurring on hills and knolls.

Meanwhile, in recent years the annual proportion of the available area that is bottom trawled for orange roughy is 0.9% per annum. Of the East and South Chatham Rise around 1% is bottom trawled for orange roughy.