Spain’s proposal on bottom trawling a stalling tactic?

Date: April 29, 2005

At Seafood 2005 in Brussels this week, the Spanish Fisheries Ministry unveiled its new position in response to the growing outrage around the world about the devastating impacts of bottom trawl fishing on the high seas.

While the DSCC welcomes Spain’s recognition that bottom trawling is a destructive fishing practice, the Ministry’s recommendations that the prohibition or suspension of fishing practices that destroy vulnerable marine ecosystems are taken only on a “case by case” basis requiring a “scientific basis” for action are deeply flawed. (1) “The Spanish proposal as presently formulated may well be a stalling tactic. It calls for more research before action to protect the vast majority of the high seas can be taken”, said Kelly Rigg, Coordinator of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. “Deep sea biologists have already confirmed that deep sea ecosystems urgently need protection now, not 10 or 20 years from now.” Spain’s proposal fails to take into account the fact that to date the state of scientific knowledge on the number, location and characteristics of seamounts and other vulnerable deep sea ecosystems is too limited to decide on specific areas that should be protected. Only a handful of the oceans’ estimated 100,000 or more seamounts have been sampled. What we do know from these samples, however, is that deep sea ecosystems are fragile, irreplaceable, and easily destroyed by deep-sea bottom trawl fishing on the high seas. The report from the latest meeting of the ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Seas) Working Group on Deep Water Ecology (8-11 March 2005) in relation to the North East Altantic Fisheries Commission area notes that information currently available on the distribution of seabed habitats such as cold-water corals is at best patchy. In the case of other significant habitat types such as sponge fields, it is virtually non-existent. “The Working Group stresses the danger of relying on such incomplete datasets since decisions to close areas to bottom trawling may inadvertently divert trawling to similarly sensitive habitats that are currently unmapped.” The only scientific basis for action is the precautionary approach, which has the merit of taking into account the best scientific knowledge available, including the limitations of scientific knowledge. The DSCC proposes reversing the burden of proof: after a moratorium or precautionary suspension has been adopted by the UN GA, it could be lifted on a case-by-case and scientific basis. Article 6.1 of the UN Fish Stocks Agreement requires Parties, including Spain and other EU member countries, to “apply the precautionary approach widely” not on a case-by-case basis in order to “protect biodiversity in the marine environment” and “prevent overfishing”. Article 6.2, obliges States to ensure that “the absence of adequate scientific information shall not be used as a reason for postponing or failing to take conservation and management measures.” “Taking a precautionary approach, the scientific grounds for closing the high seas to the world’s most destructive fishing practice already exist,” said Rigg. “And scientists around the world already agree that the solution is a UN moratorium now”. A number of the world’s leading experts in marine sciences and conservation biology are touring Europe this month, frustrated at the lack of action over a year after 1,136 scientists from 69 countries signed a statement urging the United Nations and appropriate international bodies to establish a moratorium on bottom trawling on the High Seas. One of the driving forces behind the scientists’ actions is mounting concern that entire deep-sea ecosystems will be destroyed before they can be subject to more scientific study. Deep-sea corals and sponges typically support slow-growing, long-lived species, which are particularly sensitive to disturbance. Fish inhabiting deep-sea ecosystems can live up to 150 years and coral structures may reach several thousand years old. “We can always resume trawling but we can not put back 1,000 year-old ecosystems”, said Dr. Elliott Norse, President of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute and one of the scientists participating in the tour.

Notes: (1) Paragraphs 3 and 4 of the Spanish Fisheries Ministry’s proposal on bottom trawling. (2) The precautionary approach is enshrined in the Rio Declaration of 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the 1995 UN Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement, the UN FAO Code of Conduct on Responsible Fishing, the Amsterdam Treaty of the European Union and numerous other international instruments. It constitutes the most scientifically reliable basis to move forward and conserve marine habitats and fish stocks. More information:Download the DSCC press release of 19 April 2005 (pdf)