In troubled waters

After having forced into extinction many different species of animals, human beings have most recently focused their greed on fishes in the deep seas. Being sweet, tender and easy to cook, the deep sea fishes have attracted the attention of many a chef, worrying scientists in the process

 
Published: Thursday 29 February 1996

All is not rosy for the Orange (Credit: Anand Singh Rawat)SERVING these lesser known, 'exotic', deep sea delights, restaurant owners are pocketing a neat sum, while fisherfolk too are receiving a handsome price for their catch.

The craze for deep sea cuisine, according to scientists, is beginning to upset the delicate ecosystem of the dark oceanic world which covers more than half the earth's surface, and threaten fragile life forms that dwell within. The favourite varieties exploited today are giant deep sea shrimps (like Stonington Reds and Royal Scarlets), rattails, skates, squid, red crabs, hoki, blue ling, southern blue whiting, sablefish, black scabbard fish and spiny dogfish.

. The main reasons why deep sea fish are being targeted are the fishing wars and the collapse of shallow fisheries. Species like the cod and haddock have been driven to the point of commercial extinction. Fisherfolk struggling hard to prevent the doom that heavy debts from creditors and government regulations could cause, are foraging in deeper waters.

But the survival tactics adopted by such fisherfolk may well mean the end of these deep sea animals, warn scientists and environmental groups. According to them, these animals inhabiting the icy depths of the oceans and seas grow and multiply very slowly, which makes their populations extremely vulnerable to disturbance.

The Orange Roughy, a fish found nearly two km below the surface of the sea, off the coast of New Zealand, attains sexual maturity when it is around 30 years old and lives for about 150 years. Today, Orange Roughy populations have collapsed around New Zealand. Says Mike Hagler, a fisheries expert in Auckland, New Zealand for 6reenpeace International, "people would not eat rhinoceros or any other terrestrial form of life that they knew was threatened by extinction. But they eat fish like, Orange Roughy without a clue as to what is happening."

Scientists are not demanding a move to stop deep sea fishing all together; rather, they want the entire process to slow down because deep sea food is gaining popularity at an alarming rate. Awareness and moderation seem to be the keys to avoiding trouble. "Some of these fisheries might sustain a five-boat fleet but would be rapidly depleted if 15-20 boats decided to go after them," says Peter J Auster, science director of the National Undersea Research Centre at the University of Connecticut in Avery Point, US.

A delicate balance has to be established between conservation on one hand and exploitation by fisherfolk on the other. Bruce Morehead, an official of the National Marine Fisheries Services which works in close contact with fisherfolk to achieve this balance, says, "if you do not accurately assess the stocks you can accidentally kill them off."

The technologies which are available to fisherfolk today are much more powerful. Fishing hauls which once took days to recover now take a few minutes. Traditional trawlers used long steel lines and stout nets which were either dragged mid-water or across the dark ocean floor eased on the way by rollers and drums. Today they have been replaced by bigger and faster ships with, thinner but stronger lines and wider drums. The maws of the trawls can be enormous, often hundreds of feet wide.

What was earlier military technology is now being applied for hunting fish. Radars are used to navigate boats through dense fog, sonars are used to hunt deep shoals and navigation satellites direct the boats into rich localities. This has resulted in the depletion of life from many continental shelf regions and shallow seas, and now the nets are plunging still deeper. By studying old military maps which reveal the hidden features of the deep seas, fisherfolk are able to pinpoint the rich fertile zones for their purpose.

"Deep waters mean high costs, high technology and high finance. And consequently, the pressure is on to heavily exploit the stocks," says Hagler. "You are up against a wall, which pushes fisheries beyond the limits of economic sustainability," he adds.

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