When the fish ran out, the Soviet trawlers chugged off in search of fresh prey, discovering a delicious brightly colored goggle-eyed fish called the orange roughy, which also hung around sea mounts in deep waters south of New Zealand. Their find sparked a gold rush as trawl fishermen worldwide began to hunt down the roughy hot spots. By 1990 the Australian roughy fishery was at its climax. Fifty- six boats lined up, often one behind the other, to target areas not much larger than a football field, hauling 62,000 tonnes (68,000 U.S. tons) of beautiful deep- red fish in a single year out of the lightless depths south of Tasmania, for a market that couldn’t get enough of their succulent white flesh.
Vessels were returning to port with their gunwales nearly awash in up to a million dollars’ worth of fish crammed in their holds. “I know what a gold rush looks like,” an older, wiser Stuart Richey, who was among the fishermen, reflects. “We were landing boatloads of fish. I know how it affected everyone’s thinking at the time but, looking back, you can see how illogical it all was. It was a new, deepwater species just waiting to be caught— and we didn’t have the correct science to guide us or the management to adequately restrain catches, so we just went out and caught them.”
Not realizing that the densely packed fish were spawning and not knowing that individual fish living in the unchanging, pitch- dark world of the deep ocean were 100–150 years old, the trawlers hammered in with all the firepower of modern fish- finders, satellite navigation, and sophisticated nets. Wealth poured into fishing communities that had been struggling to survive. In the two years that followed, the catch halved, and then halved again. By 1996, it was down to 5,000 tonnes (5,500 U.S. tons) and fisheries managers were panicking. A few years later the fishery was effectively shut, and a de cade later it showed only a flicker of recovery. The boom had turned spectacularly to bust. Not just off Australia but off Chile and Namibia, in the northeastern Atlantic, and in the southwestern Indian Ocean similar collapses followed.
“Why did fisheries science and management fail for the orange roughy?” asks Tony Koslow, a fisheries scientist who studied the tragedy as it unfolded. “A number of factors appear to be responsible, and they are worth exploring, if only because deepwater fisheries continue to collapse around the world. The first strategic error that doomed the Australian orange roughy fishery, among others, was violation of what I call the Scott Joplin principle. . . . Joplin often marked the tempo of his pieces, ‘Not fast.’ Later in life, he seems to have lost patience, writing above one of his scores: ‘Notice: It is never right to play Ragtime fast. Author.’ For ragtime, substitute fisheries.” Fisheries need to be played slow, Koslow concludes. The second error was to allow fishing to continue on a spawning population. And the third was a simple failure by fisheries managers to heed scientific advice, and their caving in to po liti - cal pressure from the fishing industry.
Koslow’s point is that it is very easy with modern technology to exhaust a fishery if you don’t know how big it is, its rate of replacement, or its food sources— and it is very hard to build it back up again. Time and again in recent history, this maritime “tragedy of the commons” has taken place. De cades after the destruction of the Grand Banks cod stocks, the most fecund fish in the oceans has still not recovered. Absolute caution is needed in developing any new fishery— but almost never is it exercised.
Worldwide, the evidence is mounting that the fish are running out. Almost one in three sea fisheries has collapsed or is in the process— just like the armorhead, the orange roughy, and the cod. Most of the continental shelves have been swept clean and even miles down, in the deep ocean, the rapine is now taking its toll in a world where little has changed in millions of years. Incredible though it may appear, so insatiable is the human hunger for protein that we already appear to be mining the oceans to their limit— with incalculable consequences as world demand for food doubles and doctors and dieticians urge the affluent to devour more fish still for the sake of their overfed arteries and fatty hearts.