Over-fishing hits deep-sea stocks

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Some of Europe’s most spectacular deep-sea fish species are being wiped out by overfishing, according to reports from fisheries scientists and WWF, the global conservation organisation. They warn that tough restrictions are needed to save exotic species such as the orange roughy, the black scabbard fish and the Portuguese shark.

Fisheries ministers from across Europe are preparing for a meeting of the European Union fisheries council tomorrow that will decide how heavily stocks can be exploited.

One of the documents they will consider comes from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, which co-ordinates marine and fisheries research for 19 countries bordering the north Atlantic. It will warn that catches should be reduced until they can be shown to be sustainable.

Council secretary David Griffith said: “Deep-sea fish are long-lived, slow-reproducing species that can withstand only low levels of fishing.” In Britain, these fish are mainly used in processed food.

The origins of the crisis for deep-water species began 20 years ago with a rapid decline in the population of cod, hake, haddock and other shallower-water species.

This prompted fishermen to seek stocks further offshore. Such species are popular with Spanish and Portuguese fishermen who use high-tech echo sounders to target the fish with great precision.

But species that live in deep, dark water have much longer and slower life cycles. Orange roughy, for example, take 25 years to mature, can live for 150 years but produce relatively few young.

Conservationists say the techniques used to catch such fish are highly destructive. A WWF study has criticised the fisheries around Britain as among the worst, with Spanish boats sailing under the British flag making extensive use of gill nets — long strips of net that sit in the water killing everything that gets trapped in them. Fishermen often leave such nets for weeks before recovering them, meaning much of the catch rots.

The report warns that hundreds of kilometres of gill net are lost every year, but continue to drift around the seabed, killing fish.

Source: The Sunday Times (UK)