23 November 2011

Looking at the state of our oceans and fisheries

Stuart Dickinson
The research vessel RRS James Cook, docked at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. Image courtesy Plumbago via Wikipedia

The dark depths of the Indian Ocean are still largely unexplored, but researchers from around the world are now in the process of unravelling more of its mysteries. A team of scientists recently embarked on an exciting underwater expedition off South Africa’s coastline, aboard the RRS James Cook, and are using advanced equipment to better understand this unique environment and the threats it faces. Their research might also shed light on the overfishing crisis we face in South African waters.

When researchers last explored the ocean depths in this region, they collected over 7 000 samples and discovered a new species of glowing squid which uses light-producing organs to attract its prey. With much better equipment now at their disposal, including special cameras for photographing the ocean floor, who knows what they’ll discover?

According to Aurelie Spadone of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in an Associated Press article, the trip will also allow researchers to find out how deep sea fishing is affecting marine life along seamounts – peaks rising from the southern floor of the Indian Ocean.

The state of global fish stocks in 2008. Image courtesy SASSI

Adds Alex Rogers, the expedition’s chief scientist, “Based on what we learn by studying five seamounts in the Southwest Indian Ridge, we’re hoping to get a better idea of where special habitats, such as cold water coral reefs, occur on seamounts and how we can protect them in the global oceans. Perhaps we’ll also be lucky enough to discover some new species living in these virtually unknown waters.”

Director of the IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme Carl Gustaf Lundin, explains that many of the species which live and develop around these seamounts grow and reproduce slowly, and thus overfishing can severely affect their populations.

“Deep-sea bottom fisheries, including bottom trawling, can damage seamount habitats and negatively impact fish stocks. It can also irreversibly damage cold water corals, sponges and other animals,” he says.

Overfishing in South Africa

At the end of 2010, the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) released a concerning report which detailed how many of South Africa’s inshore marine resources are considered overexploited, collapsed, and in some cases, fully exploited.

For instance, the biomass of the deep-water Cape hake (Merluccius paradoxus), which is caught by trawler, longline and handline fisheries, is estimated to be about 15% of pristine, essentially meaning it is over-fished. SASSI has declared the species “fully fished”. It is primarily exported to Europe, with smaller markets in Australia and the USA, where it is sold under the name Cape hake.

'Cape hake' on sale in Spain. Image courtesy Carlos Lorenzo

“A recovery plan has been put into place for the deep-water hake, and there are encouraging signs of resource recovery. Trawled deep-water and shallow-water hake are the only fisheries in South Africa to be certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC),” reads the report.

Other threatened fish species include West Coast rock lobster, Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna and Southern bluefin tuna. While researchers explore the effects of deep-sea fishing on underwater environments, you as a consumer can make a difference by using SASSI’s FishMS line to help combat the eradication of many fish species, as well as create awareness. By SMSing 079 499 8795, the initiative allows consumers to make on-the-spot decisions about the fish they are about to purchase.

You will immediately receive a reply informing you of that species status on the SASSI list, which says “green-listed species are the most sustainable, with the healthiest and most well-managed populations. Orange-listed species are species of concern; they are rare as a result of overfishing or fisheries that cause severe environmental damage. Red-listed species are either unsustainable or illegal to buy or sell in South Africa”.

SASSI explains that by providing retailers, restaurants and consumers with information about the sustainability of their seafood choices, they are able to make ocean-friendly choices.

Make use of the SASSI FishMS line. Image courtesy SASSI

“The last decade has already seen a steady increase in the development of global eco-labelling organisations such as the MSC and, more recently, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council,” says the report.

“Many of South Africa’s leading retailers and suppliers are committed to working with SASSI to improve the sustainability of their seafood operations. National restaurant chains are also partners on this programme and are committed to helping consumers make ocean-friendly choices.”

Did you know?

• R4.4-billion worth of fish landed in South Africa during 2009 (equivalent to 583 000 tons), and the annual revenue from commercial fisheries exports from South Africa was estimated at R3.1-billion in 2008.

• About 30% of global fish production currently flows into international trade, making it one of the most traded agricultural products.

• The 10 most requested seafood species on the FishMS line are kingklip, hake, tuna, sole, dorado, yellowtail, salmon, silver kob, prawns, and kabeljou (kob).

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