UNICPOLOS calls on countries to speed up action on high seas bottom trawling

Date: September 13, 2004

In spite of the failure of the European Union to take a leadership role to protect vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems, the United Nations Informal Consultative Process on the Law of the Seas (UNICPOLOS) called on countries to accelerate action to protect deep-sea ecosystems and deal with the impact of bottom trawl fishing on the high seas.

UNICPOLOS reaffirmed the call to take urgent action to prevent bottom trawl fishing from damaging vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems on the high seas made by the United Nations General Assembly (UN GA) in 2004 and recommended accelerated progress on implementation of the 2004 UN GA resolution. UNICPOLOS also called on states to urgently speed up cooperation in establishing “interim targeted protection mechanisms for vulnerable marine ecosystems”, a recommendation which largely applies in international waters where no regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) currently exist. In addition, where they exist, RFMOs are requested to implement measures to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems as a matter of urgency. Initially there was considerable reluctance to even re-open negotiations further to the 2004 UN GA. However, this proved impossible after a number of governments spoke to the issue during their opening or closing statements (2); the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition held a side event; several panellists raised the issue during their presentations and following an extensive debate on the issue during one of two panel discussions. The Chairs’ initial draft text called for urgent action. Amazingly, the European Union argued that any reference to “bottom trawling” be removed from the draft text of UNICPOLOS. The European Union’s bottom trawl fishing fleet, led by Spain, takes the lion’s share of the EU and world catch taken by bottom trawlers on the high seas (1). It was clear that pressure from the Spanish distant water trawl fleets was the major obstacle to the EU even reaching a common position until close to the end of the meeting. “EU countries continue to allow their overall position to be decided by the Spanish high seas trawl fleet – a total of only 55 vessels bottom trawl fishing on the high seas.

The EU must break free of the stranglehold of the deep-water fishing industry and play a leadership role in both shaping a common European position as well as negotiating a global agreement to protect the biodiversity of the deep-sea”, said Matthew Gianni, political advisor to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. “Sadly, within the EU, protecting the interests of the large-scale trawl industry in Spain won out over protecting biodiversity, at least for now.” International waters are a global commons from which all nations should benefit. Deep water organisms such as sponges are already being researched for potential cancer treatments. High seas bottom trawling must not be allowed to destroy entire deep water ecosystems before they have even been discovered for the sake of a few commercially valuable fish species. A moratorium on high seas bottom trawling until effective conservation and management regimes can be put into place is the only solution to preserving the deep sea’s treasures and unlocking their mysteries and potential for the benefit of all humankind. “The irony is that a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling will ultimately save the fishing industry from irreversibly destroying the ocean’s rich resources upon which it depends and from which it profits,” concluded Gianni. Scientists estimate that if urgent action is not taken to regulate bottom trawling, most deep sea fish stocks on the high seas caught today will be commercially extinct in 20 years – as will the deep sea fishing industry that destroyed them.

Notes: (1) Eleven nations – Denmark/Faroe Islands, Estonia, Iceland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Russia and Spain – took approximately 95 percent of the reported high seas bottom trawl catch in 2001. EU countries (including the newly admitted Baltic states) were responsible for approximately 60 percent of the total. Spain, the most aggressive bottom trawl nation, accounts for approximately two-thirds of the EU catch and 40 percent of the global high seas bottom trawl catch in 2001. From High Seas Bottom Trawl Fisheries and their Impacts on the Biodiversity of Vulnerable Deep-Sea Ecosystems: Options for International Action. Report prepared by Matthew Gianni for IUCN, NRDC, WWF & Conservation International.Executive Summary, pdf; 16 pages; 1.2 MB / Full version, pdf; 85 pages; 2.75 MB (2) New Zealand, Chile, Palau, Fiji, Costa Rica plus pointed comments from Norway and Nigeria.

More information: DSCC critique of EU statement