Toothfish: saving the ugliest fish on the planet

Page - May 10, 2009
Aside from krill, the other major fishery in the Southern Ocean is for toothfish.

Toothfish can reach 2 metres in length and can weigh as much as 100kg.

Living up to 35 years they become sexually mature when they are 6 to 9 years of age. Because their populations recover very slowly they are vulnerable to over-exploitation.

Not very pretty...

... but looks aren't everything!


Pirate fishing, officially referred to as illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, is still a major threat.  As soon as the pirate fleet has taken all the fish from one area, it moves on. It has been estimated that in some areas the illegal catch is ten times greater than the legal catch. 

Both legal and illegal toothfish vessels are now operating in the Ross Sea. The Ross Sea is the last area of pristine ocean on our planet and its unique marine life gives it a biological and evolutionary significance comparable to the Galapagos.

It is madness to lose this single remaining treasure to the commercial interests of a handful of fishing vessels. To preserve this unique ocean ecosystem, still with its entire food chain and top predators, the Ross Sea must be protected as a marine reserve. This will also provide us a 'living laboratory' to help us further understand the impacts of climate change and how undisturbed ocean ecosystems function.


Fishing for toothfish is mainly conducted with longlines, fishing lines which are tens of kilometers long, each one carrying hundreds of baited hooks and has been responsible for very high levels of seabird "bycatch," the term used for fish and animals that are unintentionally caught and then thrown overboard, often dead or injured.  Bycatch has been reduced to very small numbers in the legal fishery but the pirate fishing fleets are almost certainly still catching high numbers of seabirds.

A recent development among the toothfish pirates is the use of plastic monofilament gillnets instead of longlines.  No data is available on the birds, mammals and other marine species that are caught as bycatch in gillnets within the area, but it is known to be a fishing method with high levels of bycatch. Additionally, lost nets may carry on 'ghost fishing,' continuing to trap and kill fish and other species as they drift through the ocean.