Moves by the fishing industry to get Australia’s orange roughy fishery certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) have failed in a victory for conservation and sustainable seafood in Australia.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) has welcomed the decision by an independent adjudicator following an objection from AMCS and the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia (WWF). To our knowledge, only two of 46 such objections have previously been upheld since the MSC’s certification standard was established.

Orange roughy live for over 150 years in our deep southern seas and are caught by deep sea trawlers around south-eastern Australia. It is red listed in the AMCS’s GoodFish Guide because of the impact of trawling on fragile ancient corals and because orange roughy is a protected species, listed as ‘conservation dependent’ under Australian environment laws.

Adrian Meder, AMCS’s sustainable seafood program manager said: “The decision is a victory for conservation, and ocean loving Australians.

“It justifies the hard work put in by so many truly sustainable fisheries to achieve real sustainability, as well as the thousands of AMCS supporters who made submissions to the MSC on this matter. We heartily welcome this decision.

“Orange roughy numbers have only just begun to recover in small parts of their population from historic overfishing, and scientists have indicated that numbers are likely to decline again this decade due to lingering impacts from fishing that occurred some 30 years ago. A blue tick for this fishery could have been disastrous for this species and its habitats.”

In July, the MSC’s plan to give the fishery its coveted blue tick was exposed as a sham by AMCS for failing to consider damning scientific evidence that undermined the sustainability certification. 

Official objections against the certification were lodged by AMCS and WWF along with 10,000 AMCS supporters and even MSC itself, which led to the four day hearing about the certification before an independent adjudicator in November.

The Australian orange roughy fishery was ruled inadmissible for certification because it targets a protected species under Australian environmental law. 

“As a protected species, our orange roughy should never be under consideration to be marketed as one of Australia’s most sustainable fisheries,” said Mr Meder. 

“If we are going to fish such a vulnerable species at all, get the science done first and allow our orange roughy to recover to truly sustainable levels. That could take decades – but the industry should have and could have been more careful.”

Mr Meder said if the fishing industry attempted another shot at certifying orange roughy as sustainable, AMCS would be ready to fight it again. 

“While this greenwashing attempt was thrown out based on one key issue raised by AMCS and our co-objectors WWF Australia, we remain alarmed that the adjudicator waved through as legitimate a bogus assessment of the fishery’s destruction of ultra-sensitive deep seamount coral gardens containing several glaring scientific falsehoods,” added Mr Meder. 

“As one example, the MSC’s assessors claimed that these deep sea corals were protected on 36 seamounts surrounding but outside the fishing grounds. In truth, 26 of those 36 seamounts are simply too deep underwater for these corals to possibly exist on them – making these extraordinarily vulnerable habitats more exposed to fishing damage than is claimed.

“That’s like destroying the alpine snowfields of Mt Kosciuszko, but claiming that’s fine because there’s no plans to do the same at Mt Druitt and Mt Isa. If that’s the sort of analysis that can get a fishery certified as ‘sustainable’ under the MSC’s standard – it’s time for them to make their standard stand for something deserving of your trust.”

The adjudicator has given the group which assessed that the orange roughy should be MSC certified until 19 January to respond to her decision.

More information at Marine Conservation Society