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Midocean trawlers mine world’s seamounts

Unregulated fishing fleets work fast and deep, but rising cost of fuel may rein them in before laws do.

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“They just hammered these series of seamounts,” says Dr. Koslow. “Once they wiped out the armorhead, they then began searching somewhere else.”

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Some say that fishing seamounts on the high seas is inherently unsustainable. The cost of motoring long distances and dragging nets set a mile deep forces vessels to take as much as they can quickly, and then move on.

“You’re basically talking about mining and liquidation as an economic model,” says Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist of Oceana in Washington, D.C. “You’ve got the potential for a sustainable fishery, but it’s not going to be at a rate of return that pays for your big powered vessel.”

Subsidies, perhaps equal to one-quarter of an $80 billion global industry, are what make high-seas fishing profitable at all, says Les Watling, a professor of zoology at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu.

“Basically, if there were no subsidies, these guys wouldn’t be able to afford the fuel to go out there,” he says.

But, pointing to the many “pirate” vessels that fish profitably without government aid, Koslow says subsidies can’t be blamed for all seamount ills. Indeed, where orange roughy populations fall within national jurisdiction – and therefore relatively near shore – they’ve still plummeted. In 2006, Australia put orange roughy on its endangered species list, the nation’s first commercially exploited fish to earn that distinction.

New Zealand, meanwhile, has been ratcheting down its allowable catch for the past 20 years. Now at a low of 13,082 tons, it’s just one-quarter of its 1989 peak. Half the orange roughy stocks surveyed in a 2003 World Wildlife Fund report were at 30 percent of their prefishing biomass. (The rest was unknown.)

“We’re not feeding the starving with orange roughy or Patagonian toothfish,” says Peter Auster, science director with the National Undersea Research Center in Groton, Conn. “A good percentage of this fish is for US and European markets.” New Zealand, the world’s largest roughy producer, exports more than 60 percent of its catch to the United States, the world’s largest roughy consumer.

Only a few countries trawl seamounts in international waters, perhaps 13 in all in­­cluding Russia, Japan, and Spain, says John Hocevar, an oceans specialist with Greenpeace. (While the US fleet fishes the high seas for open-water species like tuna, it has no seamount fleet.) The concentrated nature of the seamount fleet gives Dr. Hocevar reason to hope.

“If those countries bought into protection, then they can quite easily monitor and enforce vessels,” he says. "These are wealthy, technologically capable countries."

The same GPS technology that lets high-seas fleets fish the ocean’s vast ex­­panses enables monitoring that would have been impossible 15 years ago. “Pret­­­ty much every ship ... is on somebody’s satellite,” says Dr. Hirsh­field.

The bottom line: High-seas fishing will continue “as long as there’s a market,” says Professor Watling. But he’s not without hope. High fuel prices are eating into profit margins. If they keep rising, high-seas fishing may end naturally.

“We’ve been waiting for a few years for something like this to happen,” he says. “We all knew that eventually fuel prices would go up.”