Six good reasons for a time-out on high seas bottom trawling

Date: June 8, 2005

The DSCC has released a white paper highlighting the six main arguments that have motivated 1,136 scientists from 69 nations to publicly call for an immediate time-out on the most destructive fishing method in the least protected place on Earth – deep sea bottom trawling on the high seas. The report, launched at a press conference at the sixth meeting of the United Nations Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea (UNICPOLOS), is a synthesis of the science to date on high seas bottom trawling by group of scientists (1).

It refers to deep-sea bottom trawling as the most destructive form of fishing and one of the most significant human impacts on the globe. Referring to the photograph (left) recently obtained by Greenpeace that was taken by a fisheries observer onboard a New Zealand bottom trawler north-west of New Zealand, showing a giant piece of gorgonian coral being hoisted out of a bottom trawl net, Greenpeace campaigner Carmen Gravatt said in a statement read out to the press conference, “This demonstrates only too clearly why this type of fishing is considered by scientists to be the greatest threat to deep sea biodiversity – every trawl does incredible damage. Coral this size is estimated to be more than 500 years old.” Gravatt is onboard the Greenpeace ship, the Rainbow Warrior currently in international waters of the Tasman Sea to highlight the destructive impacts of bottom trawling. On the first day of the UN discussions, Greenpeace activists who disrupted the New Zealand bottom trawl fishing vessel, the Ocean Reward, from setting its nets, were shot at with compressed air guns and sprayed with high pressure fire hoses. The tour follows up on an expedition last year in which Greenpeace documented New Zealand and Belize bottom trawlers operating in the Tasman Sea. Among the huge amounts of bottom dwelling marine life including fish, starfish, squid, sea urchins and ghost sharks that were hauled up and discarded by the fishing vessels in 2004, was a delicate branch of endangered black coral, a CITES listed species for over 20 years that is also protected in adjacent New Zealand waters. According to the white paper, deep-sea fish are too often treated by the fishing industry as a non-renewable resource, to be ‘mined’ until they are no longer economically viable.(2) Rather than fishing deep-sea fishes sustainably, commercial bottom trawlers reflect a typical pattern of serial overfishing that is best summarized as “plunder and push on.” High-seas bottom trawling quickly renders localized deep-sea fish populations commercially extinct, at which point fishing vessels move on to the next fishing ground. It is predicted that all deep-sea fisheries present in 2003 will be commercially extinct by 2025.(3) Furthermore, because of the high level of unique species found on many seamounts, the potential for extinction through trawl damage is high. (4) The report concludes: “We can say with near certainty that given current management practices, all current deep-sea fisheries on the high seas are unsustainable. Bottom trawling on the high seas is not sustainable given the inadequacy of current management and may very well be unsustainable at even greatly reduced levels of fishing.” Professor Callum Roberts a leading expert in deep sea ecology, and Professor of Marine Conservation and Biology at the University of York in the UK, who recently participated in a science tour of Europe, and spoke at the press conference, said “There is probably no such thing as an economically viable deep-water fishery that is sustainable… We must consider deep-sea stocks as non-renewable resources.” The report calls on the nations of the world to heed the scientists’ call for a moratorium until they can establish strong management measures for deep-sea fisheries and biodiversity. In its opening statement to UNICPOLOS on Monday 6 June, New Zealand noted that it “continues to share the growing concern of the international community at the damage that is being caused to seamounts and other underwater structures from the practice of bottom-trawling” and called on states “to cooperate to give effect to the UNGA call for interim targeted bans of destructive fishing practices in vulnerable areas”. (5) On 6 June, the DSCC also held a side event at UNICPOLOS entitled “Implementing International Agreements and Recommendations to Protect Deep Sea Biodiversity on the High Seas.” (6) The event was well attended by approximately 60 individuals from governments, industry, fisheries and non-governmental organizations.

Notes: (1) Why the World Needs a Time Out on High Seas Bottom Trawling, Marine Conservation Biology Institute, USA, British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge, UK, and the Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, Canada. Available in English and Spanish (pdf). (2) Clark 2001, see note 51 (3) Glover, A.G., and C.R. Smith (2003). The deep-sea floor ecosystem: current status and prospects of anthropogenic change by the year 2025. Environmental Conservation 30(3): 219-241 (4) Roberts, C.M., and J.P. Hawkins (1999). Extinction risk in the sea. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 14(6): 241-246 (5) New Zealand’s opening statement to UNICPOLOS 6 (6) Professor Callum Roberts gave a presentation on the disastrous effects of bottom trawling; Dr. Ellen Pikitch, member of the Environment and Sustainability Task Force of the UN Millennium Project presented the Task Force recommendations to ban high seas bottom trawling by January 2006; and Dr. Monica Verbeek, biologist and Fisheries Policy Officer at Seas At Risk, gave a presentation on Regional Fish Management Organization’s (RFMOs) governance and their deficiencies. More information: Linkages web site: Earth Negotiations Bulletin and images from UNICPOLOS Joint NGO Statement to UNICPOLOS 6-10 June 2005, Spanish version (pdf)

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