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Andrew Blitman likes to draw and write about philosophy, poetry, and science. The author of two books, he will graduate from the University of Miami in May 2014 with a Masters of Professional Science degree in Marine Affairs. If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail him at thewrittenblit@gmail.com.

The Orange Roughy Fishery: An Overview and Recommendations

Introduction: Are Deep-Water Fisheries Sustainable?

Deep-sea fishing is a relatively new phenomenon. The depletion of fisheries based on traditional inshore species in the second half of the 20th century, together with the impact of the declaration of 200 nautical miles (nm) exclusion zones on access of international fleets to fishery resources, has created an economic imperative to fish in more remote and often deeper waters (Lack et al 2003). Technological advances over the last two decades in detecting and harvesting fish, and the increased availability of seabed mapping information, have made deep-water fishing easier than ever before. And deep-sea fisheries are growing fast. Forty percent of the world’s trawling grounds are now in waters deeper than the continental shelves (Roberts 2000).

Because deep water fisheries are relatively new, knowledge of the species harvested is sparse. Thus, deep-sea fishermen operate in a realm of great uncertainty. However, it is commonly accepted that deep-sea species display characteristics including extreme longevity, late age of maturity, slow growth and low fecundity. Many also form dense aggregations for spawning and/or feeding (Lack et al 2003). As a result they are generally unproductive, highly vulnerable to over-fishing and potentially slow to recover from the effects of over-exploitation (Koslow et al., 2000). Yet, they are often high-value species, and this has maintained interest in developing new fisheries for deep-water species (Clark 2001).

The orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus) is a popular food fish that possesses all of the aforementioned characteristics typical of deep-water species. It is highly sought-after for its taste, and has been harvested beyond its reproductive capacity since the 1970s (Clark 2001). Despite its fragility, the orange roughy has great economic importance for being one of the first deep-water fisheries. It is harvested in New Zealand and Namibia, as well as in Australia. In this paper, I will examine the biology of this major food fish and the management of the fisheries that rely on it.

Example: The Orange Roughy

Orange Roughy

Orange Roughy by Robbie Cada (Fishbase.org)

The orange roughy (H. atlanticus) is a deep-water fish with an almost global distribution (Francis 2005). Also known as the sea perch, it is found in the chilly 3 to 9 °C (37 to 48 °F) depths of the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific Oceans (“Orange Roughy”). In the eastern Atlantic, it ranges from Iceland to South Africa. In the Indo-Pacific, the species is distributed around New Zealand and off Chile (EDF 2012). Roughies are associated with continental slopes and generally occur at 200–1800 m, but are most commonly found between 700 and 1400 m where they are known to congregate for feeding and spawning (Francis 2005). These aggregations form in and around geologic structures, such as undersea canyons and seamounts, where water movement and mixing ensure dense prey concentrations (“Orange Roughy”). The orange roughy feeds on luminescent prawns, squid, and fish (Bulman 1992).

H. atlanticus is the largest known slimehead species, growing to a maximum length of 75 centimeters (30 in) and a maximum weight of 7 kilograms (15 lb). The average commercial catch size is commonly between 35 and 45 cm in length (“Orange Roughy”). Orange roughies, like other slimeheads, are known for the mucus-filled canals that form the cranial portion of their lateral line systems (“Slimehead”). The name “orange roughy” was changed from the less gastronomically appealing “slimehead” through a US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) program during the late 1970s, which identified (then) underutilized species that should be renamed to make them more marketable (Jacquet & Pauly 2007). While alive, the fish is actually a bright, brick red color; this fades to a yellowish orange after death.

Orange roughies are also known for their extraordinary longevity. The oldest known individual lived 149 years, according to a radiometric examination of its otoliths (ear bones) (Fenton et al 1991). The fish can attribute its exceptional lifespan to a sluggish metabolism and slow growth rates, themselves a response to the chilly, nutrient-poor nature of deep-water environments. Because they grow so slowly, roughies experience delayed sexual maturity. They do not begin to breed until they are 25-30 years old (“Orange Roughy”). The maturation age used in stock assessments ranges from 23–40 years (Lack et al 2003) and places a severe limitation on the fishery’s ability to recover from human harvest. The fishery’s resilience is also hindered by the roughy’s low fecundity. When they do spawn, females lay 22,000 eggs per kilogram of body weight at a time (less than 10% the fecundity of similar-sized fish) (“Orange Roughy”). These factors combine to make orange roughy highly susceptible to overfishing; most stocks are below 30% of pristine levels (Branch 2001).

How Is Orange Roughy Caught?: Bottom Trawling

The orange roughy was first commercially harvested in the 1970s. Since the early days the deep-water fishery has grown in size and influence. The fishery itself relies on specialized fishing nets called ground trawls. Also known as bottom trawls, these fishing nets are dragged behind boats to catch large numbers of benthic fish. Boats that use these nets are called trawlers or draggers. Trawlers vary in size from small open boats to large factory trawlers, which can catch more than 100 metric tons of fish at a time (Medred 2011).

The trawl net consists of four parts: a mouth, two doors, and a “cod end” that collects the fish. The trawl doors disturb the sea bed, create a cloud of muddy water which hides the oncoming trawl net and generates a noise which attracts fish. The fish begin to swim in front of the net mouth. As the trawl continues along the seabed, fish begin to tire and slip backwards into the net. Finally, the fish become exhausted and drop back, into the “cod end” and are caught. The speed that the trawl is towed at depends on the swimming speed of the species which is being targeted and the exact gear that is being used, but for most deep-water species, a speed of around 4 knots (7 km/h) is appropriate (“Bottom Trawling”). Trawl nets catch everything in their path, including endangered sea turtles, juvenile fish and other unwanted species, resulting in high levels of bycatch.

Because bottom trawling involves towing heavy fishing gear over the seabed, it can cause large-scale destruction on the ocean bottom, including coral shattering, damage to habitats and removal of seaweed. The primary sources of impact are the doors, which can weigh several tons and create furrows if dragged along the bottom, and the footrope configuration, which usually remains in contact with the bottom across the entire lower edge of the net (“Trawling”). The UN Secretary General reported in 2006 that 95 percent of damage to seamount ecosystems worldwide is caused by deep sea bottom trawling (“Report of the Secretary-General”).

Because bottom trawling has enormous biological and ecological impacts, the practice faces growing resistance from environmental groups. On November 17, 2004, the United Nations General Assembly urged nations to consider temporary bans on high seas bottom trawling (United Nations). Similarly, Koslow reported a decline in species associated with Orange Roughy, either indirectly through trophic interactions or directly through catching them, such as sea coral (Koslow 2001).

Current Management Regimes

To address the problems created by the roughy’s biology and the subsequent problems associated with catching them, the orange roughy fishery is limited by varying levels of regulations. Depending on their location, Orange Roughy fisheries are subject to management imposed by relevant coastal states (Australia, New Zealand, Namibia, Chile); management imposed by the European Union (EU) on its members; management imposed by the North-east Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) and, potentially, the South East Atlantic Fisheries Organization (SEAFO), on its members; management agreed bilaterally for straddling

stocks; or no management at all (for example, high seas stocks). The most efficient system to date belongs to New Zealand, where orange roughy is the country’s highest value fishery and accounts for 17.2% of annual seafood exports (Clement et al 2010).

However, there are also cases where management has failed. One such example is Northern Ireland, which saw a complete collapse of its orange roughy fishery. The eight reasons for overall orange roughy failure according to TRAFFIC Oceania’s and World Wildlife Fund Australia’s 2003 joint report are:

  1. A lack of understanding of the biological characteristics of the species
  2. inadequate stock assessment models
  3. failure to take a precautionary approach in accounting for uncertainties inherent in stock assessments
  4. failure to remove excess fishing capacity
  5. inappropriate management methods
  6. lack of political will to impose rigorous management decisions
  7. lack of effective management regimes for discrete high seas and straddling stocks
  8. ineffective MCS measures (Lack et al 2003)

In spite of the sustainability issues surrounding the orange roughy fishery, the United States continues to import up to 8,620 tonnes (19 million lb) per year (“Orange Roughy”), more than forty percent of the world catch. Several major food retailers have established seafood sustainability policies dealing with orange roughy. Some, such Safeway, Inc., allow the sale of the fish (Safeway.com), while others explicitly prohibit its sale (Giantfood.com).

WW OR Fishery

Global Catch of Orange Roughy, taken from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (“Orange Roughy”)


Case Study: New Zealand

Initial catches of Orange Roughy around New Zealand were by foreign trawlers in the late 1970s. Foreign vessels were largely excluded from these waters following the declaration of New Zealand’s offshore Exclusive Economic Zone in 1978. The domestic Orange Roughy fishery expanded rapidly from 1979 reaching a peak at around 54,000 tons between 1988 and 1989 (Lack et al 2003). However by the late 1980s catch rates began to fall as the area fished began to expand. Despite the decline in catch rates, total catch remained between 20,000 and 30,000 tons per year during the 1980s and into the early 1990s (Annala et al., 2002). At Chatham Rise (one of New Zealand’s principal roughy fishing sites), catches averaged 8000 tons per year in the late 1990s; 90% of which was taken by less than 10 trawlers (Clement 2000).

NZ OR Fishery

Catch history of orange roughy fisheries in New Zealand and Australia (Clark 2001)

As catch size declined, the need for regulation of the fishery grew more apparent. In 1996, New Zealand’s government passed the “New Zealand Fisheries Act”. The law required the maintenance of the country’s fish stocks at or above the levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) and that stocks currently below (or above) the level that can produce MSY are brought up (or down) to that level. The prime management tool is the setting of species-specific Total Allowable Catch Shares (TACS) for quota management areas and allocation of the TACS as Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) (Lack et al 2003). Because New Zealand adopted a national ITQ system in 1986 (the first of its kind in the world), the transition was easy (Lock 2007).

For New Zealand’s roughy populations, the generally accepted fishery management practice is to quickly reduce the original biomass to a target of 30% (Lack et. al 2003). Assuming the roughy’s hypothetical natural biomass is 100,000 tons, 70,000 tons is considered “surplus” and unrestrained fishing is allowed to remove it. This means that from a total stock size of 100,000 tons, quotas are set to maintain the 30,000 ton target biomass (“Orange Roughy”). The catch size that allows this is the maximum sustainable yield and was originally believed to be 1,200 tons per year. By 2005, it became obvious that this quota was too high (Clement 2010).

In 2008, Antons Trawling, Ltd. represents 66% of the orange roughy quotas, and appealed the northern fishery’s 2008 quota, which reduced the total allowable catch (TAC) from 1,470 tons to 914 tons (“Orange Roughy”). This led to the establishment of new quotas. However, the new quotas are estimated to sustainably support only 11% of the unfished population size (Office of the Minister). Also, catch misreporting is a serious and common problem, with one permit holder pleading guilty in 2008 to exceeding his quota by 180 tons, which by itself represents 12% of the quota (Smith). Area limits and feature limits are also routinely exceeded. The Area A catch limit of 200 tons has been exceeded every year, while the 30 ton limit for the Mercury-Colville features has been exceeded in three of the last four years, including a catch of 64 tons in 2004 and 2005 (“Orange Roughy”). Since orange roughy is a valuable export, the Ministry of Fisheries has launched projects to study the fish (Smith). However, without ITQs, the fishery would have probably collapsed like Ireland’s did five years ago (Foley et al. 2011).


Case Study: North Ireland

An Irish commercial fishery for orange roughy began in the Northeast Atlantic in 2001 with the assistance of government grants. The fishery began as an open access, non-quota fishery. The rapid boom and bust of many deep water fisheries was experienced. Landings peaked in 2002 and then dropped significantly the following year. Many vessels were forced out of the fishery due to high costs and rapidly declining stocks. By 2005 the fishery was largely closed (Foley et al 2011).

The Rise, Fall, and Value of the Irish Orange Roughy Fishery (Foley et al 2011)

 Irish OR Fishery 1

Irish OR Fishery 2

In 2001, the average price per metric ton was at its highest at 3138 Euros but by 2003 the price had dropped 41% to 1285 Euros per metric ton (Foley et al 2011). According to statistics from the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) orange roughy was ranked tenth in the top ten species by value in Ireland in 2001. In subsequent years orange roughy did not feature in the top 10 (Foley 2011). At its peak in 2002 the deep water fishery accounted for 7.65% of landings value, after which it continued to decline and by 2006 it accounted for 1% of landings value (Foley 2011).


One of the biggest problems plaguing regulators of the orange roughy fishery is a lack of enforcement. In order for enforcement to be effective, however, Americans need to care about their seafood. Because the United States imports more than forty percent of the global orange roughy catch annually, its tastes can influence the direction of the fishery’s policy. The major driver for the importation of roughy meat is consumer demand. If conservationists use this to their advantage, they can drive down consumer demand so that orange roughy populations can gradually rebound. A most recent survey by Rutgers University and the New Jersey Department of Agriculture found that Americans (at least those in Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New Jersey), alter their seafood decisions when their health is at stake (O’Dierno 2006).

In that study, seventy-four percent of those surveyed were aware of health concerns about seafood. Sixty-five percent had heard concerns about mercury in seafood. Fifteen percent mentioned contaminants in general, 7 percent identified bacterial concerns, and 6 percent food poisoning. In both Chicago and Colorado Springs, people specifically mentioned cadmium as a concern (O’Dierno 2006).

O’Dierno also found that the majority of seafood consumers cared about seafood production methods (67%) and the way seafood was harvested (72% prefer wild-caught fish). Fifty percent of those surveyed said they would pay more for seafood if it had an eco-friendly label, while 71% said that they could care less about countries of origin when purchasing their seafood (O’Dierno 2006).

Most people are also unaware that orange roughy have been documented to accumulate harmful levels of mercury (Health Canada). The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) health guidelines for fish consumption indicate that any fish with a mercury level greater than 1.5 parts per million (ppm) should not be consumed in any amount (“Why Take Marlin Off the Menu?”). Due to its longevity, the Orange Roughy accumulates large amounts of mercury in its tissues (Health Canada). These concentrations—up to .89 ppm—are as much as 100 times higher than those found in the average edible fish (Mercury in Seafood). Based on average consumption and the recommendations of a National Marine Fisheries Service study, in 1976, the FDA set the maximum safe mercury level for fish at 1 ppm (Mercury in Seafood). Regular consumption of Orange Roughy can have adverse effects on health, which is why the Environmental Defense Fund strongly urges adults to less than 200 grams of roughy per month (EDF 2012). Children should limit themselves to 100 grams per month, or avoid the fish altogether (EDF 2012).

 Works Cited

Annala, J.H., K.J. Sullivan, C.J. O’Brien, N.W.McL. Smith & S.J.A. Varian (2002). Report from the Fishery Assessment Plenary: stock assessments and yield estimates. New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries.

“Bottom Trawling”. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bottom_trawling

Branch, TA (2001). A review of orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus) fisheries, estimationmethods, biology and stock structure. South African Journal of Marine Science. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2989/025776101784529006#preview

Bulman CM, Koslow JA (1992). Diet and food consumption of a deep sea fish, orange roughy Hoplostethus Atlanticus (Pisces: Trachichthyidae) off South-Eastern Australia. Marine Ecology Progress Series 1992; 82:115–29.

Cada, Robbie (2007). “Hoplosthetus atlanticus”. Fishbase.org. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Orange_roughy.png

Clark, Malcolm. Are deepwater fisheries sustainable? — the example of orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus) in New Zealand, Fisheries Research, Volume 51, Issues 2–3, May 2001, Pages 123-135. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165783601002405

Clement, G., (2000). The Orange Roughy Management Company Limited – A positive example of fish rights in action, in Shotton, R. (Ed.) Use of Property Rights in Fisheries Management, Proceedings of the Fish Rights 99 Conference 11-19 November 1999, Workshop Presentation. FAO Fisheries Technical Paper, 404/2 FAO, Rome.

Clement et al. (2010) “Industry management within the New Zealand quota management system: the Orange Roughy Management Company. FAO. ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/FAO/010/a1497e/a1497e25.pdf

EDF (2012). “Orange Roughy—Seafood Selector”. Environmental Defense Fundhttp://apps.edf.org/page.cfm?tagID=15817

Fenton, G.E; Short, S.A.; Ritz, D.A. (1991). “Age determination of orange roughy,

Hoplostethus atlanticus (Pisces: Trachichthyidae) using 210 Pb: 226 Ra disequilibria”. Marine Biology (Berlin/Heidelberg: Springer) 109 (2): 197–202.

Foley, Naomi, et al. (2011). “The rise and fall of the Irish orange roughy fishery: An economic analysis”. Marine Policy 35: 756-763

Francis CRIC, Clark MR (2005). Sustainability issues for orange roughy fisheries. Bulletin of Marine Science 2005; 76:337–52.

Health Canada. “Updating the Existing Risk Management Strategy for Mercury in Retail Fish” http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/pubs/mercur/risk-risque_strat-eng.php

Jacquet, Jennifer L and Pauly, Daniel (2007). “Trade secrets: Renaming and mislabeling of seafood”. Marine Policy, Volume 32, Issue 3. May 2008. Pages 309-318. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X07000760

Koslow et al (2001). Seamount benthic macrofauna off southern Tasmania: community structure and impacts of trawling. Marine Ecology 2001, Vol. 213:111-125. http://mcbi.marine-conservation.org/what/what_pdfs/Koslow_et_al_2001.pdf

Lack, M., Short, K., and Willock, A. (2003). Managing risk and uncertainty in deep-sea fisheries: lessons from Orange Roughy. TRAFFIC Oceania and WWF Australia. www.traffic.org/species-reports/traffic_species_fish10.pdf

Lock, Kelly and Leslie, Stefan (2007). “New Zealand’s Quota Management System: A History of the First 20 Years”. Motu Working Paper No. 07-02. Social Science Research Network.

Medred, Craig (2011). “Another 99 metric tons of halibut caught by trawlers”. Alaska Dispatch. October 10, 2011. http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/another-99-metric-tons-halibut-caught-trawlers

“Mercury in Seafood”. Seafood Network Information Centre http://seafood.ucdavis.edu/pubs/mercury.htm

O’Dierno, Linda J. et al (2006). “Identification and Evaluation of Viable Market Opportunities For Organically-Grown Aquatic Products.” New Jersey Department of Agriculturehttp://www.jerseyseafood.nj.gov/Organicsumm.pdf

Office of the Minister of Fisheries. “Proposed Amendment to the Fishery Act”. http://www.option4.co.nz/Fisheries_Mgmt/documents/Cabinet_Paper_446.pdf

“Orange Roughy”. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orange_roughy

Report of the Secretary-General (2006) The Impacts of Fishing on Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems United Nations. Retrieved on 10 August 2008 http://www.un.org/Depts/los/general_assembly/documents/impact_of_fishing.pdf

Roberts, C.M., 2002. Deep impact: the rising toll of fishing in the deep-sea. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. http://tree.trends.com.

Safeway Food Stores. http://www.safeway.com/IFL/Grocery/CSR-Food-Sustainability

“Seafood Sustainability Policy”. Giant Foods. http://www.giantfood.com/living_well/healthy_living/seafood_sustainability.htm

“Slimehead”. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slimehead

Smith, Peter. “Seamount fisheries in New Zealand: Effects on high-value target fish species and non-target invertebrates” http://www.unep.org/bpsp/Fisheries/Fisheries%20Case%20Study%20Summaries/Smith(Summary).pdf

“Trawling”. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trawling

United Nations General Assembly (2004) Verbatim Report meeting 56 session 59 page 4, Ms. Kimball International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources on 17 November 2004 http://www.undemocracy.com/generalassembly_59/meeting_56#pg004-bk02

“Why Take Marlin Off the Menu?” Take Marlin Off the Menuhttp://www.takemarlinoffthemenu.org/Why_Take_Marlin_off_the_Menu


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