Unpopular, Unfamiliar Fish Species Suffer From Become Seafood

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009

If the slimehead were still a slimehead, it wouldn't be in this kind of trouble.

An arm-long fish with the look of a prehistoric fossil, the slimehead lived in obscurity a quarter-mile deep in the ocean. The fish was known mainly to scientists, who named it for its distinctive mucus canals.

But then, in the 1970s, seafood dealers came up with a name that no longer tickled the gag reflex. This was the beginning of the "orange roughy."

And, very nearly, the end. With this tasty-sounding name, the slimehead was widely overfished.

On Thursday, a long-awaited report on the world's seafood stocks declared that 63 percent of these species are below healthy levels.

The seafood study, released online Thursday in the journal Science, is one of the most comprehensive looks at the contents of the world's seas. An international group of scientists examined an unprecedented amount of data about harvests and fish populations from the Bering Sea to the Antarctic, and they studied thousands of species from the Atlantic cod to the Australian jackass morwong.

Some of those worst-hit were fish that have been renamed to make them more marketable. For threatened animals on land, a more attractive name might be a blessing. But for these creatures -- slimeheads, goosefish, rock crabs, Patagonian toothfish, whore's eggs -- it was a curse.

That fishermen have turned to them shows what's left in the ocean. Today's seafood is often yesterday's trash fish and monsters.

"People never thought they would be eaten," said Jennifer Jacquet, a biologist at the University of British Columbia. "And as we fish out the world's oceans, we're coming across these species and wondering, 'Can we give them a makeover?' "

The study's lead author, Boris Worm, was following up on a study that predicted that if fishing continued at the same rate, all the world's seafood stocks would collapse by 2048. He said the latest study actually revealed something surprising: a reason for optimism.

About half of the depleted species might actually have a chance to recover, the scientists found, if given enough protection.

But, Worm said, species such as slimehead still illustrate what's gone deeply wrong.

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