The Pacific Islands and island people are living on vulnerable environmental frontlines. “As indigenous people, we depend on biodiversity for our traditional ways of life, and are entitled to an equitable share of benefits,” said Maureen Penjueli, speaking for indigenous peoples at the SIDS Panel on Environmental Vulnerability.
But high seas biodiversity, including seamounts, cold water corals, sponges and hydrothermal vents is being threatened by bottom trawling, a highly destructive fishing practice from which only a handful of rich countries stand to gain. The Pacific Ocean is thought to be home to 30-50,000 of the oceans’ estimated 100,000 or more seamounts—underwater islands that rise 1,000 meters or higher from the seabed. Rich in plankton and cold water corals, seamounts are among the world’s greatest marine biological treasures, attracting a vast array of marine life. Many of the Pacific’s clearly mapped seamounts are not yet targeted by commerical fishers, but with trends indicating a global expansion in the high seas bottom trawl fishery, it’s only a matter of time. Speaking to the United Nations on behalf of the Pacific Islands Forum Group in November 2004, Ms Perina J. Sila, Deputy Permanent Representative of Samoa to the United Nations said: “Coming from a region that has a high concentration of vulnerable marine ecosystems including coral reefs and underwater seamounts, we are well aware of, and firmly support the need to take urgent action to prevent and manage the effects of destructive fishing practices including bottom-trawling that has adverse impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems… We will be sure to take the necessary action in our own region in this regard, and will welcome further discussion next year of progress around the globe.” Small Island Developing States (SIDS) have a significant interest in protecting these underwater islands of diversity and the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition is calling on them to reaffirm their commitment to prevent the effects of destructive fishing practices on these vulnerable marine ecosystems by adopting a resolution at the international meeting currently being held in Mauritius from 10-14 January 2005. Seamounts provide feeding as well as spawning grounds for myriad fish species, including some that have migrated across wide ocean areas and are the economic lifelines for many SIDS. From large marine mammals, such as dolphins and whales, to an extraordinary diversity of fish species and the birds that prey on them, to exotic sponge ecosystems and microscopic bacteria, seamounts are home to an abundance of life comparable to that of the richest tropical rainforest. Tragically, seamounts and the life they support are being destroyed by a fishing practice that is being compared to clearcutting rainforests—deep sea bottom trawling. The story of the race to fish the high seas is a story of haves and have-nots. Having largely fished out their own waters, a small group of rich countries (1) is responsible for damaging and destroying the biodiversity of the global commons in order to supply fish demanded by their consumers. The fish caught by high seas bottom trawlers is destined for the dinner plates of Northern consumers. It does not play any role in ensuring food security for millions of people around the world but is instead destroying deep sea life and the livelihoods of those traditionally dependent on the oceans. Yet the living resources of international waters are regarded under international law as part of the common heritage of humankind and the right to fish in international waters is subject to an obligation on States to conserve marine life and biodiversity (2) and to co-operate for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity (3). In addition, one of the fundamental objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity (Art. 1) is of benefit sharing and access to genetic resources. High seas bottom trawling is destroying deep sea resources before they have even been discovered. Greenpeace, a member of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition is attending the SIDS meeting and held a workshop on high seas bottom trawling and Pacific fisheries issues.
Seamount facts & figures:
• Seamounts are underwater mountains that rise 1,000 meters or higher from the seabed but do not break the ocean surface.
• It is estimated that there may be more than 100,000 seamounts worldwide.
• In addition to being physically impressive, seamounts accumulate enormous quantities of plankton that in turn attracts a vast array of marine life.
• Seamount ecosystems are home to an unusually large number of endemic species – species not found elsewhere. Each unexplored seamount is, therefore, a potential source of numerous, undiscovered species. (See related links for link to article about new shark species found in Seychelles).
• Cold water corals have been thriving on seamounts for millions of years. Carbon dating of living cold-water corals has revealed that the oldest may be 5,000-8,000 years old or more.
• The oldest and tallest cold water coral reef yet observed has grown up to 35 metres in height.
• Seamounts and the cold-water reefs they sustain, provide essential sanctuaries and nursing grounds for countless species.
• They provide habitat for bottom-dwelling fish species including orange roughy, roundnose grenadier, blue ling, mirror dory and silver dory.
• Deep sea fish have long life cycles and slow maturation rates, many living 30 years or more. Some such as orange roughy can live up to 150 years.
• The greatest and most irreversible damage to these vulnerable cold-water ecosystems is due to the increasing intensity of deep-water trawling that relies on the deployment of heavy gear that ‘steamrollers’ over the sea floor.
• Because of the high degree of endemism on seamounts, slow growth rates and the tendency of bottom trawl fleets to target fish populations that concentrate around seamounts and other areas of the deep sea rich in biodiversity, the extinction of countless undiscovered deep-sea species can be expected unless protective action is taken.
From Mysteries and Mountains of the Deep Sea – Conserving Deep-Sea Biodiversity and Habitats, Deep Sea Conservation Coalition policy paper, available from the publications section of this website.
(1) Only 11 countries accounted for 95% of the deep sea bottom trawl fishing on the high seas in 2001: Spain, Russia, Portugal, New Zealand, Norway, Japan, Estonia, Lithuania, Iceland, Latvia and Denmark (for the Faroe Islands). The European Union countries account for more than 60% of the overall catch.
(2) UNCLOS Arts 116 & 117.
(3) Convention on Biological Diversity.