Book extract: The loss and recovery of New Zealand's richest fishery

It was like the Wild West in the early days of the near-shore orange roughy fishery. There were no restraints, the prize was there for the bold to claim and the rewards were undreamed of.

The remarkable turnaround in the orange roughy fishery is told in a new book, Roughy on the Rise, by Seafood New Zealand chief executive Tim Pankhurst, who is the former editor of The Dominion Post, Evening Post, The Press and Nelson Mail. He charts the discovery of this mysterious deepwater fish in the 1970s, its exploitation, first by foreign and then local fishers, leading to its decline and then its recovery to be recognised by the gold standard of sustainable fishing.

Introduction: Like no other fish
Everybody was riding the roughy boom – from a cash-strapped government in a struggling economy, to daring inshore fishermen in overladen boats, to corporates and family-owned businesses seeing their balance sheets bulge and their names appear on the NBR Rich List.  Bigger deepwater boats were arriving, profits were funding expansion into new aquaculture ventures in mussels and salmon, foreigners were being forced out or into joint ventures, the processing factories were driving employment and opportunity for the unskilled in struggling provincial towns and cities, and affluent buyers in the United States could not get enough of this newly discovered miracle fish with the unprepossessing name. Orange roughy was white gold.

Roughy could hardly be described as handsome but to D'Urville Islander Lindsay Elkington every one was beautiful. "To me, each one represented a $2 coin," he said. As skipper of the Seafresh vessel Newfoundland Lynx fishing the Louisville Ridge far out in the Pacific Ocean beyond the Chathams in the mid-1990s, he once called his crew to the bridge when they lost a bag of roughy hauling the trawl. He gave each of them a $2 coin and told them to toss it overboard, driving home the worth of each fish to the vessel.

"Orange roughy is like no other fishing," he said. "It's challenging and you've gotta know what you're doing. If you get it wrong you risk losing $200,000 worth of fishing gear and don't make any money. But if you get it right you can do really well. As a fisherman there's nothing more satisfying than seeing a big bag of orange roughy pop up on the surface behind the boat."

Orange roughy was also to become one of the most controversial fisheries in the world, widely seen as the epitome of poor management. The clamour was so great that it is not uncommon to find the view that orange roughy are extinct. The species has featured on virtually every environmental NGO's red list for unsustainable fisheries.

Orange roughy's epitaph has been written numerous times. Mark Kurlansky in Cod references orange roughy, a fish that "immediately gained such popularity that five tons an hour were being hauled from the depths near New Zealand." He then incorrectly added: "In 1995 the catch nearly vanished." In fact the catch that year was 21,300 tonnes and it remained around that level until 2000.

But while it was overfished and catches have dropped dramatically, stocks are rebuilding. In December 2016 the Marine Stewardship Council, the global gold standard of sustainable fisheries, awarded its coveted certification to the three largest New Zealand orange roughy stocks. Fisheries do recover under careful management backed by sound science. This is a story of loss – and of redemption – and of the men and women who shaped the world's largest orange roughy fishery.

The white gold rush begins
When orange roughy was discovered and the deepwater fishery was developed, more was known about the moon and our galaxy than what lay beneath our oceans. A voyage of discovery — complete with scientific missteps and breakthroughs, overfishing and recovery, fortunes and failure — lay ahead.

It was like the Wild West in the early days of the near-shore orange roughy fishery. There were no restraints, the prize was there for the bold to claim and the rewards were undreamed of. Those who seized the opportunity worked until they dropped — and partied even harder.

When Greg (‘Shag’) Gibbs first went roughy fishing in a little inshore trawler, Maria Louisa, in 1985 he had never seen one of the new-found fish and had little idea how to catch them. He was given a black-and-white picture of the fish, was told it was an orange roughy and that it was the target. The boss at Pukekohe Fisheries, Bill Callaghan, also told him a truck would be waiting on shore for him to unload. The fish were so plentiful there was no question he would fill up in short order.

So it proved. Armed with the co-ordinates for a pinnacle that had been labelled Strawberry Mountain on the Ritchie Bank off Hawke’s Bay, Gibbs was immediately awash with roughy. Tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of them. There began a period of immense catches, insane risks, stupendous paydays and larrikin behaviour both on and off the water in the heyday of the greatest fishing boom the country had ever seen.

The small boats steaming out of port from the art deco town of Napier came home a day later with full holds and fish piled high on the deck, with just enough freeboard to stay above the waterline amid prayers for calm weather on the anxious chug back. On occasion there was no worry about a wave coming up the stern ramp, for the simple reason it was stuffed with a net full of roughy that could not be fitted into the groaning hold.

The over-catching was so extreme it became a byword at the Maritime School in Nelson for how not to load a boat, complete with pictures of grinning, nonchalant crews and skippers, their decks awash with the weight of overfull nets. There was so much fish, worth so much money, it was like scooping up $20 bills. Knockabout, unskilled workers with few formal qualifications, and fishing boat owners who had struggled to make a living, were becoming rich almost overnight. The excesses that the wide boys of the money market took for granted — fast cars, faster women, property and oceans of alcohol and, for some, illicit drugs — were suddenly available to men whose definition of sophistication was a second pair of white gumboots. Some took full advantage and partied as hard as they worked. Others did some of that, too, but were smart enough to build enduring businesses on the back of the roughy boom.

On the night Gibbs’ mate Kippy Walker sank his boat, San Alexander, the end came quickly. Walker knew he was in trouble and was unlikely to get back to shore. Even so, it was terrifying when water suddenly poured into the wheelhouse on a pitch-black night.

Lessons from cod collapse
It was the disappearance of cod on the Grand Banks, the renowned fishery from whence the Basques had supplied Europe with food since the Middle Ages, that was the catalyst for a bold project to conserve the world's oceans.

The loss of the cod staple was a wake-up call for the food industry. The giant processor Unilever was alarmed at the loss of cheap, plentiful supplies of frozen white fish. No more Captain Birdseye, no Captain Igloo, no business. The World Wildlife Fund was also considering what it could do to reward and incentivise sustainable fishing. That led the world's biggest buyer of white fish and the biggest international conservation non-government organisation to sit down together in 1997 and develop a market-based organisation similar to the already established Forest Stewardship Council.  

While other prominent environmental NGOs were relentlessly negative about industrial fishing, the new entity, the Marine Stewardship Council, sought to create a credible science-based certification labelling programme.  The aim was to support sustainable fisheries in the marketplace.  For two years the council worked to develop a standard for environmentally responsible and sustainable fishing.

This challenging process involved over 300 consultations with industry, governments and stakeholders around the world. About 400 wild fisheries, 11% of the world's catch representing 11 million metric tonnes, are now MSC certified, with New Zealand orange roughy being among the latest.  Hoki, the species with the biggest New Zealand landings by far, has been certified three times.

Restoring the fishery
Fisheries can and do recover. The oceans were full of fish after World War II, when fishing effort was markedly reduced. MSC head Rupert Howes is optimistic that global fisheries can be sustained. "Our journey is not always an easy one. Fisheries science is complex and evolving, and where the bar for sustainability is set is often hotly debated.  We learn.  Management improves, attitudes change. All the fishers I meet are conservationists. They want to see the oceans managed sustainably because their livelihoods depend on it and in many cases they want their families to continue in their businesses. It's not MSC, it's the leadership of the industry that's going to turn this around. We're just the tool to give that assurance and verification."

About a billion people rely on seafood as a fundamental part of their diet, according to MSC.  It estimates that globally the oceans support the livelihood one one in 10 people, while the economic value of industries related to fishing has been estimated at US$2.9 trillion. Seafood is the world's single most traded food commodity - 10 times the volume of coffee.

The MSC orange roughy assessment was carried out by MRAG Americas (formerly Marine Resources Assessment Group), a group of science specialists providing third party reviews.  Its three-person team was led by Dr Robert Trumble, MRAG certification manager and a senior US research scientist.  His colleagues were South African Andre Punt, a professor at the University of Washington and a leading quantitative scientist specialising in new methods for assessing fish populations, and Amanda Stern-Pirlot, formerly a policy director with MSC in London who studied sustainable fishing in Germany and latterly worked for the Alaskan pollock fishery.

Their work was peer reviewed by Canadian-based fisheries and seals research scientist Dr Don Bowen and US-based fisheries consultant Tom Jagielo. The assessment team's work included a series of interviews in New Zealand and Australia in July and August 2014. Their final report and determination published in May 2016 was unequivocal. It said the three orange roughy stocks it assessed were "exceptionally well managed and are characterised by state of the art stock assessments and harvest strategies".  

It continued: "All three stocks had dropped well below the current target range of 30-50 percent (of the original biomass) but have increased in abundance since the 1990s or 2000s." It further found "New Zealand implements high levels of control over the fisheries to minimise environmental impacts." '

The chef's verdict
Queenstown chef Darren Lovell, co-owner and manager of the popular Fishbone restaurant, has no such doubts. "Orange roughy is a premium table fish," he said, carefully placing a fillet in a pan in his kitchen.

"It has a beautiful, almost scallop-like flavour to it, it's kind of silky in the texture in the mouth. New Zealand customers are very aware that orange roughy was the poster boy for bad fisheries management. It's fantastic it now has the MSC tick of approval. It means we can eat this completely guilt-free. It's really good to look a customer in the eye and say that you are serving a sustainable product. Orange roughy proves that we are trying to do the right thing by the fish stocks and by the customers."

Lovell long refused to serve orange roughy, until he researched its history for a presentation to a chefs' conference on sustainable seafood and was won over.

In years to come, will the doomsayers acknowledge they got it wrong, that fish stocks can and do replenish when well managed, and that New Zealand and other progressive countries have played a vital role in securing protein for a hungry world? But if they are right, that will be a catastrophe and we will all have failed. Avoiding this is what continues to motivate skippers and their crews, scientists, officials, politicians, quota holders, processors, marketers and chefs to safeguard a precious resource and ensure it is fished sustainably.

That way the world's most controversial fish can continue to survive and prosper in its dark, unfathomable depths.

© Reprinted with permission from Roughy on the Rise, by Tim Pankhurst, published by Steele Roberts Aotearoa.