First countries embrace UN Task Force recommendations including the elimination of high seas bottom trawling

Date: April 15, 2005

The Dominican Republic and Papua New Guinea are the first countries to adopt and begin implementation of a series of recommendations made by the United Nations (UN) Task Force on Environmental Sustainability, including the elimination of high seas bottom trawling (1). “Today marks an historic moment when the forward-thinking leaders of two developing countries… embrace not just the principles of environmental sustainability but its practical applications,” said Prof. Don Melnick of Columbia University, welcoming high-ranking officials from the Dominican Republic and Papua New Guinea at a briefing in New York.

Prof. Melnick is one of the principal authors of the Task Force’s report presented to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on 17 January. The report, launched nationally in over 100 countries worldwide, was also released in New York on 7 March. “We look forward to the rest of the international community following suit, in particular those countries whose vessels are currently engaged in bottom trawl fishing on the high seas”, said Matthew Gianni, and advisor to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. “Agreeing to a moratorium on high seas bottom trawl fishing at this year’s UN General Assembly is an essential step on the road to sustainable fisheries, comprehensive protection of deep-sea marine ecosystems, and to meeting the Millennium Development Goals in relation to the conservation and protection of the world’s biodiversity.” Bottom trawling is the first unsustainable fishing practice identified in Chapter 4 of the report that must be eliminated in order to restore depleted fish populations: “Global fisheries authorities must agree to eliminate bottom trawling on the high seas by 2006 to protect seamounts and other ecologically sensitive habitats… and to eliminate bottom trawling globally by 2010″… [An] immediate moratorium would prevent irreversible destruction on the high seas and provide more time to fully assess deep sea biodiversity, fisheries, and ecosystems; determine their vulnerability to deep sea fishing on the high seas; and adopt and implement protection laws.” (2) Task Force member Ellen Pikitch of the University of Miami’s Pew Institute for Ocean Science said “The task force recognized that the most important step we can take to assure the sustainability of marine systems and the essential services they provide is to halt their further destruction. It is widely recognized that bottom trawling is by far the most destructive of the fishing methods in wide use globally”. Developing technologies to minimize bycatch and eliminating the destruction of corals are also identified as necessary. Today’s deep sea bottom trawlers drag huge nets armed with multi-ton steel plates and rollers across the seabed, plowing up and pulverizing all in their path. Not only are ancient coral, sponges and other deep-sea structures obliterated, but large quantities of incidentally caught species (by-catch) are caught, only to be thrown back overboard – dead, destroyed or dying. The Task Force also recommends that fisheries are managed at sustainable levels through an ecosystem-based approach and establishing a network of establishing a network of fully protected marine reserves covering 10 percent of the oceans within the next decade, with a long-term goal of 30 percent. The call for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling has already been made in a number of other fora (3), and this latest call by the UN Task Force on Environmental Sustainability adds increased weight to the building political momentum for a moratorium. The Task Force maintains that these steps are unquestionably necessary to stem the decline of the earth’s oceans, in addition to being essential to achieving environmental sustainability and the other Millennium Development Goals.

Notes: (1) The UN Task Force is part of the UN Millennium Project, an independent advisory body commissioned by the UN Secretary-General to advise the UN on strategies for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the set of internationally agreed upon targets for reducing poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation and discrimination against women by 2015. (2) Element 4 of Chapter 4 Report of the Task Force on Environmental Sustainability of the Millennium Project (Jeffrey Sachs) – available here (3) Recently, scientists, conservation groups, a number of governments and the UN Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea (UNICPOLOS) for the UN General Assembly called for a moratorium on bottom trawling on the high seas.
On 25 November 2004, the IUCN World Conservation Congress adopted a resolution supported by 62 countries, calling for a UN General Assembly moratorium on bottom trawl fishing on the high seas to protect the world’s oceans from high seas bottom trawl fishing.

Bottom Trawling Gear
The mouth of bottom trawl nets is held open by two steel plate doors that help to keep the net on the seafloor. One company markets what it calls “Canyonbusters”, trawl doors that weigh up to five tons each and undoubtedly live up to their name. To protect the net from snagging on rugged seafloors, heavy chafing gear is attached to the bottom of the trawl net. A heavy cable is then strung through steel balls or rubber bobbins – known as roller gear or rockhoppers – that can measure a meter or more in diameter.