From words to jellyfish soup and seafloor rubble

Date: May 3, 2005

Called ‘Moving from Words to Actions’, it was hailed as the meeting where fisheries ministers would take action to conserve the high seas. But the Ministerial declaration released yesterday from the Canadian High Seas Governance Conference in St. John’s Newfoundland completely ignores the issue of environmental destruction caused by bottom trawling, fails to protect habitats or make commitments to specific actions, and does not set deadlines.

Not only does the declaration fail to even mention bottom trawling, it does not promote effective ecosystem-based management and places considerable emphasis on the role of regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) – many of which were set up by Fisheries Ministries to exploit fishing interests – to solve the oceans crisis. It is no surprise that the Ministers propose that one of the first steps will be to review existing RFMOs with a view to modernise them. But the review will be carried out by the RFMOs themselves, something akin to the wolf setting up new security procedures for the chicken coop. The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) and other conservation and environmental groups represented at the meeting are calling on the UN to conduct such a review in co-operation with FAO, the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Committee, and other international and non-governmental organizations with relevant expertise. The disappointing declaration comes in spite of a series of recommendations presented to the Governance Conference from the Gearshift Conference (1), an address on behalf of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition to Fisheries Ministers and dramatic calls to action on the eve of the Governance Conference by the Canadian Prime Minister, Paul Martin. After speaking to demonstrators gathered outside, who urged him to address the impacts of bottom trawling, Mr. Martin called on meeting delegates “to seize this historic occasion, and begin the process to stop the rape of our fisheries and oceans, once and for all.” Now it is up to the conference to make up for the failures of the Ministers group as it seeks to come up with a plan to implement the declaration . “If action is not agreed this week, destructive fishing will continue to leave a trail of devastated fishing communities, jellyfish soup and seafloor rubble,” said Lisa Speer of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Jellyfish soup because jelly-fish are becoming the predominant species in certain ecosystems as everything else is fished out, while seafloor rubble is all that is left of deep sea coral structures that can take thousands of years to grow after one pass of a bottom trawl.” In her address to Ministers on the first day of the conference, on behalf of members of the DSCC, WWF and local Canadian Groups, Speer elaborated on the need for urgent action. Deep sea fish tend to be long-lived (for example orange roughy can live to be 150 years old), slow-growing, and extremely vulnerable to overfishing and depletion. Deep sea ecosystems are similarly long-lived, slow-growing, and extremely vulnerable to disturbance. Deep sea scientists are discovering species new to science with practically every voyage. Some of these species show great promise for treating cancer, asthma, and other deadly diseases. High seas bottom trawling may destroy countless species before scientists have had a chance to identify and learn about them. Only an immediate, interim prohibition on high seas bottom trawling can provide adequate short-term protection until effective regulatory measures to conserve biodiversity are adopted and enforced.

Notes: (1) The Gearshift Conference was held in St. Johns and Petty Harbour on 29 and 30 April. The Conference was attended by fishermen, scientists, conservationists, community economic development workers, and fisheries observers from Newfoundland, Canada and from as far away as New Zealand. More information: Conservation International’s statement to the conference Oceana’s statement to the conference