Get your act together & protect fragile footholds for ocean life

Date: May 12, 2005

Following on from a European tour in which leading marine biologists brought their concerns direct to European decision-makers, a number of European countries are being asked to support a moratorium on bottom trawling on the high seas in the run-up to the EU’s Law of the Sea Working Group (COMAR) meeting on Friday 13 May.

On the eve of COMAR, Greenpeace and the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) are setting off from Greenock, near Glasgow on an expedition to explore the Mingulay reef, a little-known coral reef complex off the west of Scotland (1). Using remotely operated underwater vehicles to study, sample and document the reef, the scientists will also be looking for evidence of damage to the reef from bottom trawling. “Parts of the Mingulay reef complex could be as much as ten thousand years old, yet, like so many marine habitats worldwide, we know virtually nothing about it or its importance to marine life,” said Greenpeace scientist David Santillo. “The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition of which Greenpeace is a member, is currently campaigning for a UN moratorium on high seas bottom trawling which would allow the time for this kind of research to be carried out around the world, so that informed decisions can be made about how to protect these fragile footholds for ocean wildlife.” In February 2004, 1,136 of the world’s leading deep ocean scientists from 69 countries signed a statement calling for urgent action to protect fragile deep sea habitats from the devastating impact of high seas bottom trawling. Although momentum in favour of a moratorium has been building steadily in recent years, the international community has so far failed to take concrete action. (2) It is anticipated that EU Ministers meeting for COMAR in Brussels will decide whether the EU will support a moratorium at the United Nations General Assembly later this year. “The EU will be critical to the success or failure of international efforts to protect the biodiversity of the deep sea and Germany will play a central role in deciding what the EU position will be,” said Matthew Gianni, political advisor to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC). “The EU is responsible for the lion’s share of the high seas bottom trawl catch and it is EU leadership that will help protect deep sea biodiversity or EU intransigence that will ultimately prevent the world from taking action.” (3) “Get your act together, honour the noble declarations and conventions that you have signed and protect life in the deep sea now,” is the message that Dr. Rainer Froese would like to convey to European decision-makers meeting at COMAR on Friday, 13 May. Senior scientist at the Leibniz-Institut für Meereswissenschaften IfM-GEOMAR in Kiel, Dr. Froese is one of a number of leading deep ocean scientists who toured Europe in April, meeting with key government representatives in Spain, Germany, the UK and at the European Parliament in Brussels (4). Along with the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, the scientists participating in the tour are calling for a moratorium on bottom trawling in international waters, based on the precautionary approach that is enshrined in a host of international agreements (5), among them UN Fish Stocks Agreement (UN FSA) (6). “Similar to the oath of Hippocrates which involves a special responsibility of medical doctors for human life, I think that biologists have a special responsibility for all life on earth,” Froese explained when asked why he joined the science tour. “Life in the deep sea is largely unknown, yet already being destroyed at a pace that exceeds the destruction of the world’s rainforests. The science tour is a very timely opportunity for scientists to speak out to the public and to decision makers. “More humans have been beyond 10,000m than below 4,000 m. We spend much more money exploring other planets than exploring the last frontier of unknown life on earth – the deep sea,” concluded Froese. “Obviously we should not destroy life in the deep sea before we even had a chance to look at it. After all, we are not ploughing Mars up before we land a rover.”

Notes: (1) Little-known coral reef to be explored, Greenpeace press release, 12 May 2005. (2) For a summary of recent developments see A Moratorium is Fundamental, DSCC publication April 2005 (pdf). For a more detailed account of political developments see Political Momentum Is Building Rapidly, April 2005, DSCC publication (pdf). (3) Eleven nations – Denmark/Faroe Islands, Estonia, Iceland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Russian and Spain took approximately 95 percent of the report high seas bottom catch in 2001. EU countries (including the newly admistted Baltic states) were responsible for approximately 60 percent of the total. Spain, the most agressive 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. (4) Dr. Froese and Professor Callum Roberts from the University of York in the UK, met with key representatives from each of the three government departments responsible for determining Germany’s policy on fisheries, oceans management and conservation in Berlin on 27 April. The meeting was also well attended by Latin American embassy representatives, demonstrating the growing international interest in and pressure for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. (5) The precautionary approach, enshrined in the Rio Declaration of 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN FAO Code of Conduct on Responsible Fishing, the Amsterdam Treaty of the European Union and numerous other international instruments constitutes the most scientifically reliable basis to move forward and conserve marine habitats and fish stocks. (6) Under Articles 5 & 6 of the UN FSA the Parties are already under a legal obligation to “apply the precautionary approach widely” in order to “protect biodiversity in the marine environment” and “prevent overfishing” (Articles 5(g) & 5(h)).

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