Undersea Volcanoes in Deep Trouble, Eco-Groups Say

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Also known as the deep sea perch, the species was first targeted in the northeast Atlantic in 1991, with annual catches soon hitting 5,000 tons (4,500 metric tons). But within three years, catches fell 75 percent as numbers dwindled, according to the WWF.

A second report, also released last month by the WWF and TRAFFIC, an international wildlife trade monitoring network based in Cambridge, England, called for immediate action to halt the global collapse in orange roughy stocks.

"Unsustainable Levels"

Anna Willock, TRAFFIC's senior fisheries advisor, said: "In 25 years of commercial fishing for this species, over one million tons of orange roughy have been caught. These levels have proven to be unsustainable and yet…management has failed to act responsibly."

WWF marine policy officer Helen McLachlan added: "This is just one example of deep sea species we need to protect. There are a myriad of deepwater species associated with seamounts which are also under threat. The future development of deep sea resources must be conditional on a full and transparent assessment of the risks involved if we are to avoid more and more species facing commercial extinction in years to come."

Fishing nations criticized in the orange roughy report include New Zealand, where up to 70 percent of the orange roughy catch is taken on seamounts.

New Zealand government fisheries scientist John Annala concedes that during the 1980s, allowable catches turned out to be unsustainable. But he noted: "Subsequent research showed orange roughy was a very unusual species, long-lived and slow to reproduce. When we found this out we took major action, developing a 20-year rebuild strategy. That strategy has been enormously successful and has seen stocks recover to or towards sustainable levels."

Meanwhile, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), an intergovernmental organization based in Copenhagen, Denmark, which promotes marine and fisheries research in the North Atlantic, states: "Little is known about seamount ecosystems in the [Northeast] Atlantic, or the impact of human activities upon these unique oceanic ecosystems, mainly due to lack of funding for research into these systems."

With the search for new seamount fishery locations and potentially marketable deep sea species continuing, the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) through international agreements is seen as a conservation tool that could help safeguard seamounts.

Gubbay says a MPA program for the northeast Atlantic is currently being developed by the Commission for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, an alliance of 15 European countries, though it remains unclear how the program will be implemented.

These protected zones can be introduced horizontally, so that upper levels may continue to be exploited commercially, while the deeper ocean, areas below 500 meters (1,640 feet), for example, become off-limits to trawlers.

A total fishing ban on some seamounts must also be considered, Gubbay concludes, if these mysterious deep sea wildernesses are to be preserved.

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