The Red List: Orange Roughy


Experts agree that certain types of seafood should be avoided because they come from overfished stocks or are harvested in a way that damages the environment. Check out our Know Your Seafood infographic and our GO! Fish campaign for more information on the Red List and the delicious and eco-friendly alternatives.

Orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus) is a long-lived, deep-dwelling fish species found in oceans around the world. They are more concentrated off New Zealand, Australia, Namibia, and in the northeast Atlantic and usually in water 500-1500m (1,600-50,000 ft) deep. They don’t mature until their late 20s and can live over 100 years!

Orange roughy tend to hang around seamounts (underwater mountains that, unlike islands, don’t break the surface) and form large groups when they spawn. This makes them easy targets for fishermen. However, since they’re so slow to grow and reproduce, they are also very vulnerable to overfishing and slow to rebound from exploitation. Now, orange roughy have landed on most seafood “avoid” lists for the extensive overfishing that has occurred.

Photo by Marc AuMarc via Flickr, Creative Commons License. 

There was a time when this species wasn’t so desirable to seafood connoisseurs. A name change from the less-appealing common name “slimehead” to the new-and-improved “orange roughy” turned out to be a brilliant – and problematic – marketing move. Customers assuredly also weren’t yet aware of the dangers of eating these fish; their long lives mean they accumulate high concentrations of mercury in their tissues.

Populations of orange roughy – slimehead – are decimated. After 30 years of heavy fishing, they are estimated to be at 10-30% or less of their original population size. Even though management plans are now in place for most fisheries, they are expected to take decades to recover because of their slow-growing life history.

To make things worse, they are usually caught by bottom trawling, in which nets with massive metal weights are dragged along the seafloor, uprooting everything in their path. This has caused extensive damage to seafloor habitats around the world, and in some places the damaged coral will take even longer to recover than the orange roughy population will.

You can, however, still get the great taste of this fish without the environmental damage. Chef Barton Seaver recommends replacing orange roughy in recipes with US farmed tilapia, a sustainable species, and brining it before cooking. Seaver also suggests wreckfish from South Carolina, while other options include US farmed Catfish or Pacific Halibut.

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