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Rough Seas for Orange Roughy: Popular U.S. Fish Import in Jeopardy

Washington, D.C. - Reckless overfishing is rapidly causing the demise of orange roughy and other imported fish species popular with U.S. consumers, according to a new scientific study released by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and TRAFFIC. The study finds that rapidly expanding and unregulated fishing in deep waters is fast depleting species that could become commercially extinct if protective measures are not taken immediately by international governing bodies.

"The report shows that some deep ocean fish stocks, like orange roughy, have been wiped out in less than four years," said Simon Habel, director of TRAFFIC-North America, the wildlife trade-monitoring network. "As Americans buy more and more orange roughy, they contribute to the pressures that could ultimately take the fish right off their plates and out of the seas as well." The United States is a significant and growing market for orange roughy, importing more than 19 million pounds annually in recent years and accounting for nearly 90% of documented catches.

According to the report, Managing Risk and Uncertainty in Deep-sea Fisheries: Lessons from Orange Roughy, a rising demand for seafood, and depletion of fish stocks closer to shore, has led to a rapid expansion of deep-sea fisheries and subsequent damage to sensitive marine areas, especially seamounts, where many species new to science could face extinction before even being identified.

"We are calling for urgent and strong protection measures to protect orange roughy populations and particularly sensitive marine areas such as seamounts," said Kim Davis, deputy director of WWF's Marine Conservation Program. "Unchecked growth of fishing fleets and ineffective fleet monitoring have been especially damaging to orange roughy fisheries and deep sea resources in New Zealand, Australia, the Southern Indian Ocean, and the Northeast Atlantic Ocean. These are basic failures of management that must be reversed if we are to ensure the survival and the commercial viability of these species."

Additional problems identified in the report include poor understanding of biological characteristics of the species, inadequate stock assessment models a lack of political will needed to impose rigorous management decisions and the failure to support management decisions that are implemented with effective monitoring, control and surveillance measures.

"The report reveals that orange roughy fisheries have been managed poorly, or not managed at all," added Davis. "This research provides valuable lessons for the future development of deep-sea fisheries. It shows that we must learn from our mistakes - and explore, not destroy, the resources of our last frontier."

The U.S. is the main importer of orange roughy. New Zealand is the main supplier, providing more than 60% of U.S. imports in 2002, followed by China (18%) and Australia (17%). Namibia was a major supplier, experiencing rapid expansion if its fishery and accounting for nearly one-third of U.S. imports in the mid-1990's. Later, that same fishery declined rapidly and Namibia accounted for only 2% of U.S. imports in 2002.

"That kind of boom turning to bust experience is exactly what better management can help us avoid," added Habel.