Deep-sea fisheries

Lobbying and Advocacy


Although film director James Cameron's 2012 dive to the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, made headlines, human-occupied vehicles began to take scientists to the deep seabed in the 1960s. Each decade since then has led to increased access to the deep ocean through the use of technologically advanced robotics for exploration and scientific research. Science has played an important role in making the case for political commitment to, and tangible action towards, implementing measures to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems in the deep sea from the damage caused by destructive fishing practices and, increasingly, other human activities such as deep-seabed mining.

In 2004, more than a thousand scientists from 69 countries signed a statement calling on governments and the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to adopt a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. In 2006 a number of the world's leading deep-ocean scientists toured around Europe to bring their concerns directly to decision-makers. At the same time, scientists from Australia, Canada and the UK sent letters to their governments calling for action. These acts marked a turning point in the mounting global campaign to halt deep-sea bottom trawling on the high seas. 

Since then numerous scientists have continued to call for action to halt the destructive impact of deep-sea bottom trawling. 1 2


Underlying the scientists' statement is a still-emerging body of science. Even today scientists are only just beginning to understand the diversity, significance and vulnerability of deep-sea biodiversity and ecosystems. Due in part to the Census of Marine Life, scientists now know that the deep sea is teeming with life, though most it remains undiscovered. One of the driving forces behind the scientists' action in 2004 was mounting concern that entire deep-sea ecosystems will be destroyed before they can be subject to scientific study. Numerous studies have shown that, today, it is bottom fishing that has the greatest direct impact on the deep sea. Hydrocarbon and mineral extraction are fast-rising threats, and ocean acidification and climate change are likely to have profound effects on the deep ocean in the near future.

In the context of the fishing industry, where advances in bottom trawl technology mean that it is now possible to fish the deep sea's rugged floors, scientists have expressed profound concern that "deep-sea bottom trawling has significantly damaged deep-sea ecosystems, including coral reefs, sponge gardens and seamounts, and caused serious declines in deep-sea fish populations”. They continue to urge that the precautionary principle be used to ensure that the deep-sea environment is protected.3

In 2004, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report entitled Cold Water coral Reefs: Out of Sight - No Longer Out of Mind. More recently, in September 2010, UNEP launched a groundbreaking report Deep-sea Sponge Grounds: Reservoirs of Biodiversity, highlighting deep-sea sponge science and conservation. Compiled by leading experts in the field, the report consolidates knowledge on the biology and ecology of deep-water sponge grounds, their value to society, and their associated policy frameworks. It is aimed at boosting the protection and sustainable management of these long-overlooked diverse and ancient habitats. The report also draws attention to how little is currently known and demonstrates the need to develop fuller knowledge and understanding of these habitats together with raising awareness as to why sponge grounds are important and of the threats they face.

In the Northeast Atlantic, the EU-funded HERMIONE project(Hotspot Ecosystem Research and Man's Impact on European Seas), designed to advance our knowledge of the functioning of deep-sea ecosystems and the impacts of human activities, ran from April 2009 through September 2012. Among the project's conclusions was that whole communities of deep-sea species, including many more than those targeted commercially, have been depleted in the Northeast Atlantic as a result of deep-sea bottom trawling. It also concluded that the physical impact of bottom trawling on the seabed in the area was of a magnitude higher than all other activities combined (eg. oil and gas exploration, research, submarine cable laying, etc.). The findings are being used to promote effective, science-based governance strategies and management plans.

Clear message to policy-makers and industry

In May 2011, a workshop in Lisbon brought together 22 scientists and fisheries experts from around the world to review the implementation of the UNGA resolutions on high seas bottom fisheries, and a report was produced which summarized the workshop conclusions. The workshop report identifies examples of good practice and makes recommendations in areas where the current management measures fall short of the actions called for by the UNGA.

Several of the report's contributing scientists attended, and made presentations to the UNGA meeting in September 2011 reviewing the implementation of resolutions 61/105 and 64/72. A discussion of the outcomes of the meeting can be found here.

The DSCC continues to work with scientists at the science-policy interface. There have recently been a number of new initiatives from deep-sea scientists to provide scientific advice and information about the regulation of activities in the deep sea. Among these are the International Network for Scientific Investigation of Deep Sea Ecosystems (INDEEP) and the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative, which are addressing deep-sea fisheries, deep-seabed mining and bioprospecting for seabed marine genetic resources. The DSCC also continues to work with the scientific bodies of regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) in the implementation of the UNGA resolutions.

Visit the publications section of this site for links to further scientific reports.

UN processes

For the past decade, protecting biodiversity in the deep sea in areas beyond national jurisdiction – the high seas – has been extensively debated by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and in other international fora. The UNGA adopted a series of resolutions, beginning with UN Resolution 59/25 in 2004, which called on high seas fishing nations and regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) to take urgent action to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) from destructive fishing practices, including bottom trawl fishing, in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

A report from the UN Secretary General in 2006, on progress on the implementation of the 2004 resolution, concluded that little action had been taken to protect deep-sea ecosystems on the high seas from the adverse impacts of bottom fisheries despite the fact that "deep-sea habitats in these areas are extremely vulnerable and require protection".

As a result of a review by the UNGA in 2006, and calls by a number of countries including Brazil, Palau and other Pacific Island countries, the UNGA adopted a "compromise" offered by nations whose vessels deep-sea fish on the high seas through UNGA Resolution 61/105, adopted by consensus in December 2006. Resolution 61/105 committed nations that authorize their vessels to engage in bottom fisheries on the high seas to take a series of actions, outlined in paragraph 83 of the resolution. The main action points are summarized as follows.

  1. Conduct impact assessments to determine whether bottom fishing activities would have significant adverse impacts on VMEs.
  2. Ensure that, if fishing activities have significant adverse impacts, they are managed to prevent such impacts, or else prohibited.
  3. Close areas of the high seas to bottom fishing where VMEs such as cold-water corals are known or likely to occur, unless fishing in these areas can be managed to prevent significant adverse impacts to such ecosystems.
  4. Establish and implement protocols to require vessels to cease fishing in areas where an encounter with VMEs occurs during fishing activities.
  5. Sustainably manage the exploitation of deep-sea fish stocks.
  6. Implement these measures, in accordance with the precautionary approach, ecosystem approach and international law, by no later than 31 December 2008.

A set of International Guidelines for the Management of Deep-Sea Fisheries in the High Seas were then negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) to: further define and agree to criteria for the conduct of impact assessments of high seas bottom fisheries; identify VMEs; assess whether deep-sea fisheries would have "significant adverse impacts" on VMEs. The FAO guidelines were adopted in August 2008.

In 2009, the UNGA determined that Resolution 61/105 had not been implemented sufficiently. As a result, the UNGA adopted additional provisions in Resolution 64/72. This resolution reaffirmed the 2006 resolution and made it clear that the measures called for in Resolution 61/105 should be implemented, consistent with the FAO guidelines, by flag states and RFMOs prior to allowing, or authorizing, bottom fishing on the high seas to proceed

Resolution 64/72 placed particular emphasis on conducting impact assessments of bottom fisheries on the high seas and called on states and RFMOs to “ensure that vessels do not engage in bottom fishing until such assessments have been carried out”. Resolution 64/72 further called for stock assessments and conservation measures to ensure the long-term sustainability of deep-sea fish stocks, including species impacted by deep-sea fishing which are not of commercial value (so-called non-target or bycatch species), and the rebuilding of depleted fish stocks. The key elements of the resolution are contained in paragraphs 119–120. Also, crucially, the resolution called on states not to authorize bottom fishing activities until such measures have been adopted and implemented.

In addition to the UNGA, meetings of the Conferences of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have adopted a series of decisions calling for action. Most recently, the 2010 meeting of the 10th Conference of Parties called on high seas fishing nations to “fully and effectively implement” UNGA Resolution 64/72.

The DSCC, through its member organizations, has participated in negotiations to implement the UN resolutions on bottom fishing around the world since 2004. Based on direct experience and a review of various actions taken, the DSCC released a report in September 2011 to coincide with the 15-16 September workshop to review implementation of the UNGA Resolutions 61/105 and 64/72. The main findings of the report include that:

  • while progress has been made in identifying and protecting some vulnerable marine ecosystems, measures taken to date are far from comprehensive
  • assessments of fishing activities have not been completed for the majority of bottom fisheries
  • deep-sea fisheries for many species remain unregulated.

Based on this review, the DSCC concluded that high seas fishing states are, with few exceptions, failing to live up to the provisions of UNGA Resolutions 61/105 and 64/72. As a result, deep-sea stocks continue to be increasingly over-exploited and vulnerable marine ecosystems may be lost. At the September 2011 workshop, the DSCC called on states fishing in areas where the UN resolutions have not been fully implemented to cease bottom fishing, as is required by Resolution 64/72, until effective measures consistent with the resolutions are adopted and implemented, including required impact assessments.

The 2011 UNGA negotiations concluded in December that year with the adoption of a new resolution, Resolution 66/68 on Oceans and Sustainable Fisheries, calling on high seas fishing nations to take stronger actions to protect deep-sea life.

Welcomed by the DSCC, Resolution 66/68 reinforces the conclusions of the Coalition’s September 2011 report, which concludes that “urgent actions called for in the relevant paragraphs of [previously adopted United Nations General Assembly resolutions] 61/105 and 64/72 have not been fully implemented” with respect to the regulation of deep-sea fisheries on the high seas, and “emphasizes the need for full implementation by all states and relevant regional fisheries management organizations and arrangements of their commitments under those paragraphs on an urgent basis” to protect deep-sea ecosystems and species.

The resolution further calls for strengthening procedures for conducting environmental impact assessments of high seas bottom fisheries and calls on states to publicize “without delay” the assessments and improve compliance with deep-sea fisheries regulations. The UNGA agreed to hold another review of the implementation of the resolutions in 2016.

It is critical that the UNGA continues this level of oversight with regard to deep-sea life lest it become a case of “out of sight out of mind”. Importantly, the new resolution called for more transparency in RFMOs and for impact assessments to be made public. These are important tools, which the DSCC will use to ensure transparency, accountability, and compliance with the UNGA requirements by RFMOs.4

European Union

The European Union has adopted a number of regulations to manage deep-sea fisheries. The EU has been a party to the regulations negotiated by a number of regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) to manage deep-sea fisheries on the high seas. (For a review of the strengths and weaknesses of the management of deep-sea fisheries on the high seas see the DSCC publication Unfinished Business).

In addition, in 2008 the EU adopted a regulation designed to implement United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 61/105 to prohibit bottom fishing in areas of the high seas not regulated by a RFMO without prior impact assessments. The regulation requires areas to be closed to bottom fishing where vulnerable marine ecosystems are known or likely to occur unless fishing can be managed to prevent significant adverse impacts on such ecosystems.

In the Northeast Atlantic, the EU began managing fisheries for several species of deep-sea fish in 2002.5 In addition to regulating the catch of deep-sea species, the EU has closed several areas to deep-sea bottom fishing in the waters off Scotland and Ireland to protect cold-water corals and, in 2005, adopted a regulation6 to prohibit bottom trawling and bottom gillnetting below 200 meters in the waters surrounding the Azores, Canary and Madeira Islands. The EU has also prohibited the use of bottom gillnets in EU waters below 600 meters depth.7

However, in 2007 a European Commission review of the EU's management of deep-sea fisheries found that the regulation was not effective and concluded, amongst other things, that: "Many deep-sea stocks have such low productivity that sustainable levels of exploitation are probably too low to support an economically viable fishery." As a result, the European Commission began a process of drafting a proposal for new legislation to replace the 2002 deep-sea fishing regulation, taking on board the internationally agreed approach to managing deep-sea fisheries established in the UNGA resolutions.

After several years of consultations, in July 2012 the European Commission issued a legislative proposal to overhaul the EU's regulation of deep-sea fisheries, including phasing-out of the use of bottom-trawl and bottom-gillnet fishing to target deep-sea species.

The proposal was submitted to the EU member states’ Fisheries Ministers and Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) for debate and adoption, both of whom the DSCC has been working with to adopt the phase-out contained in the Commission proposal. Before entering into force, the proposal has to be agreed by the European Parliament and the Council of Fisheries Ministers from the EU’s 28 member states.

In December 2013, after continual delays and an aggressive campaign by a number of deep-sea trawling industry associations, the European Parliament voted to strengthen the text in many areas but the proposal to phase out deep-sea bottom trawling and bottom gillnetting was narrowly defeated by a vote of 342 to 326. However, 20 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) later formally corrected their vote and, although such corrections do not change the text adopted, it is clear that a majority of those who voted were also in favour of eliminating these destructive deep-sea fishing practices.

The Council of Fisheries Ministers has yet to agree its position.

Throughout, the DSCC has called for additional measures to strengthen the EU’s deep-sea fisheries regulation through:

  • requiring environmental impact assessments for all deep-sea fisheries
  • establishing a mechanism for closing areas to bottom fishing where vulnerable marine ecosystems are known or likely to occur
  • ensuring that deep-sea fishing be prohibited if the catch of deep-sea species is not demonstrated to be sustainable
  • prohibiting the bycatch of the most vulnerable species (e.g. endangered species of deep-sea sharks)
  • phasing out of bottom trawl and bottom gillnet fishing in the deep sea.

Click here for the latest on EU deep-sea fisheries reform.

In the water

  • Each of the resolutions adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2011 has been progressively stronger than the last. Though much more still needs to be done, this momentum has led to increasing action by states and regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) to regulate deep-sea fishing on the high seas, in particular bottom trawling. To date, states and RFMOs have not fully implemented the UNGA resolutions and much of the high seas still remain unprotected from the unregulated and destructive impact of deep-sea fishing.
  • Nonetheless, as a result of the DSCC’s work and in response to the debate and resolutions adopted by the UNGA, significant changes have already occurred on the water. Tangible results achieved (from the most recent) include the following:
    • Closure to bottom fishing of a substantial portion of deep-sea areas at fishable depths (less than 2000m) on the high seas of the Northeast Atlantic south of Iceland, including a number of areas where cold-water coral reefs are known to occur; the prohibition of deep-sea bottom gillnet fishing; the requirement for environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for bottom fishing in most of the remaining high seas areas.
    • Closure in the Northwest Atlantic of 12 deep-sea areas along the continental slope to all bottom fishing to protect concentrations of corals and sponges; closure of six seamount areas to bottom fishing (with the proviso that up to 20% of each area could be fished on an exploratory basis); the requirement for EIAs for bottom-fishing in previously unfished areas.
    • Negotiation of a new treaty to establish a North Pacific RFMO to regulate deep-sea fisheries; a requirement for EIAs to be conducted for all high seas bottom fisheries in the region.
    • Negotiation of a new treaty to establish a South Pacific RFMO to regulate deep-sea fisheries; a temporary prohibition on the expansion of bottom fishing in the South Pacific into new high seas areas; the closure of some 40% of the area previously bottom trawled by New Zealand's orange roughy fleets on the high seas; and a ban on bottom gillnet fishing.
    • Closure of 10 seamount areas in the Southeast Atlantic (revised in 2010), and a prohibition of bottom gillnet fishing.
    • A prohibition on bottom trawling and bottom gillnet fishing in Antarctic (Southern Ocean) waters; a requirement for EIAs as a pre-condition for bottom longline fisheries.
    • Prohibition of bottom trawling below 1000m in the Mediterranean; closure of three areas to bottom fishing at lesser depths to protect a seamount, cold seep and cold-water corals.

    All of these actions are positive steps forward, and many of them will serve to protect some species and deep-sea ecosystems in some areas. However, the set of actions called for by the UNGA are far from fully implemented. The impact assessments produced to date are partial and inconclusive at best and while some high seas areas have been closed to bottom fishing, many high seas areas where vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) are likely to occur remain open to bottom fishing with few or no constraints.

    The “move-on rule” is often the only conservation regulation in place to protect VMEs in existing and new, or unfished, areas. It is, however, of limited value in protecting VMEs given the high threshold levels established as triggers for the move-on rule in many of the high seas fisheries.

    There has been a general reluctance on the part of many states and RFMOs to close areas where bottom fishing currently takes place or has taken place over the past five to 20 years.

    The DSCC has conducted two in-depth reviews of the actions taken by states and RFMOs to implement the UNGA resolutions. A third DSCC review is due out in April / May 2016, in conjunction with the UNGA’s own Review of implementation scheduled for later in the year.


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    4. Regulation (EC) No. 734/2008 Back to Text

    5. Regulation (EC) No. 2347/2002 Back to Text

    6. Regulation (EC) No. 1568/2005 Back to Text

    7. Regulation (EC) No. 1288/2009 Back to Text