12 October 2011
UNITED NATIONS -- Conservationists and the international fishing industry are gearing up for another showdown over the fishing method known as bottom trawling next month, when U.N. officials return to what has probably been the most intensely debated fisheries issue to feature here over the last decade.
U.N. officials are hosting talks on deep-sea trawling in mid-November in what could be the lead up to a new resolution passed by the body in December. That would make three such resolutions passed in the space of five years if the U.N. General Assembly votes in favor.
The most recent resolutions on the practice, passed in 2006 and 2009, have come under fire by a number of environmental groups for what they see as soft implementation by flag nations that may be guilty of ignoring the damage that can result from raking deep-sea ecosystems. Others have noted progress since the topic was last broached at the United Nations that could be improved by better coordination.
Thought to be in jeopardy are seamounts, cold-water coral, sponge structures and other deep-sea ecosystems, all of which can be damaged when fishnets are dragged along the seafloor. The fishing method, says Alfred Schumm of the World Wildlife Fund, "is one of the most destructive fisheries in high seas if not managed very carefully."
The U.N. General Assembly has listened to the critics before, passing the '06 and '09 resolutions under pressure in a bid to better manage fisheries that are beyond national jurisdictions. This time around, a damning report released in September, from the nonprofit Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), alleges a pattern of spotty implementation by deep-sea fishing nations that signed onto the accords.
The report says "impact assessments" the U.N. called for have been produced in the Pacific and Southern oceans but ignored in the Indian and Atlantic. Some say the failure to conduct those assessments means certain areas should be closed outright to trawling.
Moreover, the report says hundreds of species of bycatch are taken, discarded and left to die. The report also questions whether industrial-scale deep-sea fishing is economically sustainable in the first place, as "most deep-sea species can potentially sustain only low levels of exploitation."
"There has been a general reluctance on the part of many states and [regional fisheries management organizations] to close high seas areas to protect [ecosystems] where bottom fishing currently takes place," the DSCC report says, adding that the countries often opt for lightly applied "move on" rules for vessels or no regulations at all.
To Matt Gianni, one of the founders of the coalition and still a policy adviser there, the upcoming talks are a chance to correct work at the United Nations that has already consumed a fair amount of time and attention.
"It's not like the U.N. hasn't spent a lot of time on this," he said in a phone interview from Amsterdam.
Gianni said the meetings will be a "test case" of a number of fomenting issues, to include whether the European Union and Japan will live up to past commitments. Beyond that, the talks could also be a referendum on the United Nations' ability to govern.
"It is a test case of the efficacy of the U.N. system to resolve problems regarding the use the global commons," he said.
Though it is difficult to attain a mainstream view on the subject, a summary of a U.N. workshop on trawling held in September penned by Alice Revell, of New Zealand's Mission to the United Nations, gets about as close as one could expect.
Revell moderated the September workshop and was given the task of drafting a summary document following the affair. In her draft, she notes attendance by 43 nations, 19 intergovernmental organizations, regional fisheries and 12 non-governmental organizations.
The summary is less aggressive than the DSCC report but does note the same criticisms. For instance, Revell cites an absence of good scientific data on deep-sea zones, saying "participants stressed the need for fisheries-independent research, monitoring, recovery studies and stock assessments."
She goes on to note that many participants in the workshop appeared to believe the current U.N. resolutions are sufficient as long as they are fully implemented.
As for the nations involved, which include the E.U. states, Japan, South Korea, Russia and South Pacific island nations, to name a few, Revell's summary says several called for "the early entry into force of instruments to establish new [regional fishery organizations], in particular in the Southern Indian Ocean and the Northwest Pacific Ocean."
When asked for the industry view, Alastair Macfarlane, general manager of trade at the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council, referred to the summary and said it represents a fair examination that will "assist the formulation of the text for this year's resolution." He demurred when asked to elaborate on that view.
WWF's Schumm offered a more detailed analysis of the flag nations that actually have vessels engaged in trawling the seafloor. Of the top 10 flag nations, Schumm identified Australia, France, Portugal, Belize and Estonia as having failed to conduct impact assessments in their fishing zones. The other fishing nations -- Spain, Russia, Japan, Korea and New Zealand -- have all complied to a certain extent.
To Gianni, the problem is simply "a lack of political will" to regulate fishing vessels far from the coasts of most nations. But he sees reason for optimism and expects some movement this fall at the United Nations.
"There are ... substantial scientific and technical challenges, but these are not insurmountable," he said.
As for the United States, which is not engaged in deep-sea fishing, Gianni said he has been pressing the U.S. government -- specifically, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- to act under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to take actions against countries that fail to implement the U.N. trawling resolutions.
"This needs to be recommended by NOAA, which NOAA is reluctant to do," he said. "We've petitioned them on this, in relation to the preparation of their most recent report to Congress in January 2011, but they have rejected our recommendations."
Monica Allen, a spokeswoman for NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, responded that the United States believes in protecting marine ecosystems and will continue to push for adherence to U.N. resolutions.
"The U.S. has and will continue to solicit and fully review all information as part of our process under the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act to strengthen conservation efforts," she said in an email. "We will further continue to work with our international partners to encourage the full implementation of the United Nations General Assembly resolutions on bottom fishing."
author: Colin Sullivan of Greenwire