The once rich groundfish resources of the Grand Bank have been decimated. The organisation responsible – the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (NAFO) is fatally flawed, has lost all credibility and must be scrapped, says a report commissioned by the Canadian government, underlining the urgency of international calls for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. “NAFO has been particularly ineffective in managing the stocks under its aegis… to the point that the Panel views its replacement by a more modern organization as a minimum requirement for achieving susbtainability of groundfish resources in the Grand Banks area,” says the Advisory Panel on the Sustainable Management of Straddling Fish Stocks in the Northwest Atlantic (APSS) (1) in its report (2).
However, perhaps disregarding the advice of his own panel, the Canadian Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Geoff Reagan and his Norwegian colleague have announced that they want reform within NAFO (3). “We agree with the Panel that NAFO can’t be fixed,” said Mark Butler of Canada’s Ecology Action Centre, a member of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. “But the Panel and the Minister are ignoring the elephant in the room – bottom trawling, or dragging as we call it in Canada. Business as usual until NAFO is reformed or a new NAFO is set up is simply not an option, because there will be nothing left by then. We need a moratorium now.” One of the oldest and most established regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs), NAFO was established in 1979 to regulate fishing in the international waters just outside Canada’s 200-mile limit, for species such as cod, halibut and shrimp that move across the boundaries of one or more special zones and into the high seas. But with one exception, the APSS found that NAFO has failed to conserve the groundfish resources of the Grand Banks which have been decimated and reduced to levels that may not be reversible, undoubtedly due to excessive fishing, whether legal or illegal in Canadian waters and beyond on the high seas. Ten stocks are currently under moratoria. The Panel identified four principal shortcomings of NAFO – fatal flaws that, it says, have resulted in NAFO losing all credibility in Canada: (1) the lack of a precautionary and sustainable management approach based on realistic conservation objectives; (2) voting procedure which allows minority interests to influence events out of all proportion to their own involvement in the fishery; (3) an objection procedure which allows those “opting out” of a majority decision to fish as they decide, without consequence except to the detriment of the area’s resources and the interests of other participants (4); and (4) no compulsory dispute settlement mechanism. Echoing these findings, Deep Sea Conservation Coalition member, Greenpeace has also just presented the conclusions of a recent expedition to the NAFO area in August (5), together with an earlier study on NAFO (6), in a letter to the organisation’s Executive Secretary and members. During three weeks at sea, Greenpeace witnessed mismanagement in the shrimp and Greenland halibut fisheries and dubious operators like the Estonian flagged Lootus IIlegally fishing in the NAFO Area. (7) The organisation also found evidence of the destruction and lack of protection for deep-sea life. The following issues are also identified by Greenpeace as major flaws within NAFO: the lack of political will of NAFO member states to hold to its rules and enforce real penalties when these are broken; the lack of effective measures to eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and an ongoing disregard for and lack of inclusion of scientific advice. (8) “If NAFO is the best example of a Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (RFMO) then deep-sea life is indeed in deep trouble,” states Greenpeace in its letter. “We believe these findings support the urgent need for an immediate United Nations moratorium on high seas bottom trawling.” Greenpeace concludes that without “major restructuring” or “radical transformation”, NAFO appears largely incapable, legally and politically, to manage its fisheries sustainably, let alone take on the important task of protecting deep sea life. In 2004, RFMOs were given two years by the United Nations General Assembly to take urgent measures to address the impact of destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling, on vulnerable marine ecosystems in international waters. NAFO has to date done nothing to respond to this. “NAFO has had 25 years to reform itself”, said Greenpeace oceans campaigner Bunny McDiarmid. “It has failed miserably. NAFO management has resulted in the wholesale destruction of this incredibly rich marine ecosystem. If there is going to be something left to manage and protect by the time the necessary changes have been agreed and implemented, a temporary moratorium on high seas bottom trawling across the high sees – including in the NAFO area – is required now!” “If the Canadian government is calling for the jewel in the crown of RFMOs to be scrapped, how much worse are the other RFMOs?” asked Matthew Gianni, political advisor to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. “And let’s not forget that most of the high seas are not covered by RFMOs competent to regulate bottom trawling and are therefore unregulated. That’s why the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition is calling for a moratorium on all high seas bottom trawl fishing”, Gianni concluded.
Notes: (1) The Advisory Panel on the Sustainable Management of Straddling Fish Stocks was appointed on 13 December, 2004, to “advise the Government of Canada on how to reduce overfishing and avoid ecological destruction of straddling stocks in the NAFO Regulatory Area and achieve sustainable use of the oceans.” (2) Breaking New Ground: An Action Plan for Rebuilding the Grand Banks Fisheries, Report of the Advisory Panel on the Sustainable Management of Straddling Fish Stocks in the Northwest Atlantic (3) Candian Minister’s Response to the Final Report of the Advisory Panel on Straddling Fish Stocks, 1 September 2005. (4) It is legal for NAFO members to opt out of quotas or conservation decisions by simply using an objection procedure – as Iceland has done with the shrimp fishery in 3M. The Icelandic shrimp trawler “Petur Jonsson’ was one of the shrimp trawlers encountered by Greenpeace during its August 2005 in the area (see (4) below). Other trawlers fish here under a system that does not set a total allowable catch but instead allocates a number of days and vessels to member countries. Fishing captains that Greenpeace spoke to claim that this has led to smaller shrimp and bigger boats to catch them. (5) Letter from Greenpeace to NAFO Executive Secretary, also sent to NAFO members. (6) The Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation: a case study in how RFMOs regularly fail to manage our Oceans, by Bunny McDiarmid, Martini Gotje and Karen Sack, Greennpeace, June 2005 (7) Greenpeace observed bottom trawling in the shrimp, Greenland halibut and redfish fisheries. Greenpeace documented 19 boats bottom trawling. The vessels were flagged to Spain, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, Canada and Japan. See spreadsheet of the boats documented in the Area. View video from the expedition, Quicktime / Real Player / Windows Media player (8) In NAFO’s shrimp trawling area known as 3M, the reported catch is more than that recommended by NAFO’s own scientists. The Greenpeace letter to NAFO notes that NAFO’s scientists regularly express concerns at the state of fisheries under NAFO’s care, yet their voices seem to go unheard in the race to catch the last fish. The APSS is calling for “an urgently needed” scientific review aimed at Grand Banks fisheries management in an ecosystem context that “ would be invaluable in informing fisheries management worldwide”.