Just what is a Toothfish and why have they become the symbol of the fight to save ‘The Last Ocean’?
Toothfish are big long-lived fish that can weight up to about 100 kilos although the average catch weight is closer to ten. They eat crustaceans, squid and smaller fish and are in turn preyed on by seals, orca and colossal squid. Their rich firm flesh is a sought-after delicacy in up-market restaurants around the world (including in Auckland) and branded as 'Chilean Sea Bass' - it can sell for as much as $US70 a kilo
There’s two main sorts, the Patagonian Toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) which is found in deep water (45m – 4000m) throughout the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic Toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni), which lives in deep water around the edge of Antarctica. The Patagonian fish has been the basis of a deep water fishery since the 1970s but until quite recently the Antarctic species had been unmolested in it’s gin clear southern habitat.
The Antarctic species first came to light in 1905 when one of Scott’s men on the Discovery expedition obtained a specimen mangled by a seal. It was named after Douglas Mawson, a very tough Australian Antarctic explorer who in 1913 was the sole survivor of what many regard as the most nightmarish journey in the annals of polar exploration. His face was featured on the Australian $100 note until 1996.
This was also the same year that the Antarctic Toothfish became the target of exploratory fishing by New Zealand in the Ross Sea.
The Ross Sea
The Ross Sea was the last ocean to be discovered. Much of it’s area lies within a deep bay of the Southern Ocean in Antarctica between Victoria Land and Marie Byrd Land. Discovered by the explorer James Ross in 1841 it is situated almost directly south of New Zealand and covers an area of approximately 960,000 sq km. Some of the ocean is always covered by the Ross Ice Shelf but in the short summer months it is one of the largest areas of clear water in Antarctica and huge blooms of plankton provide a rich food resource for crustaceans, fish, squid, penguins, seals and whales. At the foot of the ice shelf is Ross Island and McMurdo Sound, home to both the New Zealand and American Antarctic base stations.
The Antarctic Tooth-fishery established in 1996 took off and boats from New Zealand and later South Korea, Russia, Spain and Norway began to fish in the area. The commercial fishery which was established came under the management of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) which set an annual quota of 3500 tonnes for the twenty-five member countries involved in the organization.
The fishing is managed like a gold rush with around thirty boats from nine countries currently competing to catch as many fish as they can before the total quota for the year is reached. New Zealand companies usually send around four deep sea boats down to the Ross Sea each year and catch between thirty to fifty percent of this quota (with an average worth of around twenty million NZ dollars).
The fish are caught in the summer season using baited long-lines, and the industry is in practice a highly regulated one with minimal by-catch of other fish species or seabirds. The fishery has recently been certified as sustainable by the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
This all sounds like a well run fishery. What’s the problem?
There's some big ones!
Lack of Information
We do not know enough about the Toothfish nor the affects of the fishery on the ecosystem.
The Ross Sea is the last big unspoiled ecosystem on the planet. This ‘living laboratory’ can teach us about the workings of all other marine ecosystems.
But it’s a difficult place to study. It’s a long way from anywhere and for much of the year large parts are covered in ice.
CCAMLR plan to allow the fishery to reduce Toothfish to fifty percent of estimates based on the original size of the mature population but no-one has any real idea how this drastic reduction will affect the area’s food-chain. When large numbers of apex predators (like Toothfish) are removed from an ecosystem it can have a disastrous impact. Humans have already eaten their way through ninety percent of the large fish in the ocean. This reduction in predators has meant that inedible jellyfish are on their way to becoming the dominant features of many systems which were formally ruled by big fish.
There is already evidence from the aptly named Art De Vries (who studies the anti-freeze proteins that prevent Toothfish and other Antarctic fishes blood from freezing)and his colleagues in the US and NZ that Toothfish and their predators are becoming rare in McMurdo Sound.
"We aren't able to catch them any more. It used to be at this time of the year I'd be able to get at least four or five in 24 hours. There is just nothing around".
In recent years pressure from conservation groups has meant that a number of North American supermarkets have stopped selling Toothfish (despite the MSC certification).
The North Korean vessel - Sima Qian Baru 22 - fishing illegally in the Ross Sea in April 2011
Fisheries Control Issues
In the late 1990s to the early 2000s illegal and unregulated fishing for Patagonian Toothfish reportedly nearly collapsed parts of the fishery in the Southern Ocean. However thanks to the activities of CCAMLR and conservation groups illegal Patagonian Tooth-fishing has been much reduced. The amount of Antarctic Toothfish being poached is probably smaller than Patagonian Toothfish but the high price of the fish is always going to tempt people to flout the law.
There are also concerns that despite the observer programme implemented by CCAMLR some vessels are under-reporting their catches. There is also some evidence that CCAMLR’s tagging programme is being manipulated by some vessels. A percentage of the catch are supposed to be tagged and released to try and provide some assessment of the total population based on the number of fish which are caught again. The lower the re-catch rate the higher the population is assumed to be. There are reasons to believe that tagged fish are not being accurately recorded on purpose to make it seem like the population is larger than it really is (and hence no need for quota reduction.)
The Jeong Woo 2 on fire in January 2012 The Kai Xin burning in April 2013
Pollution Risks and Fishing Deaths
The Ross Sea is the last place on earth you want to have an accident but some of the fishing boats which go down there are in a poor condition and the badly paid crews have insufficient training to cope with the harsh conditions. The summer fishing season of 2011/2012 was an unmitigated disaster with three Toothfish boats getting into serious trouble in the area.
The first was the Korean fishing boat No.1 In-Sung. On December 13th, 2011 it sank in the Ross Sea with twenty-two crew dead or missing. Twenty sailors survived and were picked up by other fishing vessels. This disaster was blamed on crew members leaving doors open in high seas.
On the 16th of December the Russian fishing vessel Sparta was holed by sea ice and came perilously close to sinking off the Ross Ice Shelf. Luckily it was assisted by the New Zealand air force and a Korean ice-breaker and managed to stay afloat and leave the area without fatalities.
On the 11th of January, 2012 a fire broke out on the Korean fishing vessel Jeong-Woo Two (sometimes spelt Jung-Woo) in the Ross Sea killing three and seriously injuring two others. Thirty-seven sailors were rescued from the burning ship which probably sank. In this remote area no-one is exactly sure what happened to it, how much oil was released and what the consequences were for local wildlife. The same is true for the No.1 In-Sung.
The last season (2012/13) was quiet until the end when in April of 2013 the Chinese krill fishing boat, the Kai Xin caught fire about 55km from Chile's Bernardo O'Higgins research base near the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula. The crew were rescued but the boat sank.
A large oil spill in any of the oceans around Antarctica could kill thousands of penguins, seals, whales and other wildlife and have a disastrous impact on the ecosystem for years.
Many organizations are concerned about these issues and would like to declare either part or all of the Ross Sea a reserve.
Currently activities on the Antarctic landmass are covered by the 1961 Antarctic Treaty System. This permits no mining or exploitation of local wildlife on the continent itself. But the surrounding oceans are not covered by this agreement.
This may soon change.
New Zealand, Australia and the United States have proposed a marine protected area in the Ross Sea (and areas outside it) which would make fishing off-limits (or restricted to ‘research fishing’) in about half the sea. Last year the twenty five nations involved in CCAMLR failed to reach any consensus regarding the proposal but furthur attempts will be made to move the issue forwards.
Most of the big conservation groups don't think partial protection is sufficient and would like to see fishing banned in the Ross Sea (and other areas) altogether. They argue that it’s not worth risking the health of this important and fragile environment for any amount of fish or cash.
The local industry argues that even if they were to pull out of the fishery other countries would move in straight away to take up the slack. Better to keep our place at the table than relinquish it to someone else. This is a cynical argument that does not sit well with New Zealand’s perceived idea of itself as a world leader in conservation and sustainable fishing practices.
We need to act now before it is too late!
What can I do?
Toothfish needs your help to raise enough public and political pressure on the CCAMLR member nations (starting with New Zealand or your own local Government) to have them support a comprehensive fishing ban for the entire Ross Sea. The risks are way too high to allow any fishing in Ross Sea at all!
1) Write a letter to your local Prime-Minister saying you'd like to see full protection for the Ross Sea. (By pressing the link on the word 'Prime-Minister' you can go to pre-prepared letter that is ready to send to the NZ PM John Key)
2) Get informed and spread the word! On Facebook you can 'like' :
The Antarctic Ocean Alliance
The Last Ocean
The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition
3) Watch the movie, ‘The Last Ocean’ and show it to other people.
4) Donate money to the Last Ocean Charitable Trust
5) Don't eat Toothfish (Chilean Sea Bass)
Thanks to - Bob Zuur (World Wide Fund for Nature), Barry Weeber (ECO),
Peter Young (The Last Ocean) and Sheridan Orr.