Scientists Speak Out: Action Urgently Needed in the Deep Seas

Date: October 20, 2005

There is growing concern amongst scientists about the need to take urgent action to protect deep sea biodiversity – fish stocks as well as habitat. The International Council on the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) has prepared a report calling for “a complete overhaul of deep-sea fisheries.” (1) According to a 17 October ICES press release about the report’s launch (2), “scientists will recommend that all existing deep-sea fisheries should be cutback to low levels until they can demonstrate that they are sustainable. They will advise zero catch of depleted deep-sea sharks, and they will recommend that no new fisheries for deep-sea fish should be allowed until it can be demonstrated that they are capable of being sustainable.”

According to David Griffith, General Secretary of ICES, “Deep-sea fish such as the orange roughy or the roundnose grenadier are long-lived, slow reproducing fish that can withstand only low levels of fishing pressure. All our evidence indicates that the current fishing pressure on these stocks is much too high. We are particularly concerned about deep-sea sharks such as the Portuguese dogfish and leafscale gulper shark which are now heavily depleted.” “Unfortunately, the ICES recommendations confirm what we have been saying all along: that deep-sea fisheries are in deep, deep trouble,” said Karen Sack, Oceans Policy Advisor for Greenpeace International. (3) WWF stepped up the pressure even further, demanding that “EU Fisheries Ministers listen to ICES advice and take urgent action to prevent the total collapse of all deep-sea fish stocks” and called for the closure of all deep sea fisheries. (4) The EU remains the biggest stumbling block with the United Nations General Assembly in efforts to agree on a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. In the UK, which currently holds the EU Presidency, top marine scientists are also calling for urgent action worldwide. In an open letter signed by 50 leading scientists, Minister Ben Bradshaw was urged to “take advantage of a historical opportunity to secure significant protection for the world’s deep-ocean ecosystems on the high seas – the two-thirds of the world’s oceans that lie beyond the jurisdiction of any nation. We are calling on you exercise leadership during the UK Presidency of the European Union to negotiate a moratorium on deep-sea bottom trawl fishing on the high seas at the United Nations General Assembly this year.” (5) Minister Bradshaw also received a letter from Sir John Lawton, Chairman of the prestigious Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. (6) Last December, the Royal Commission said that drastic and urgent action was needed to save the marine environment from further destruction by fishing, including the ruinous effects of deep sea bottom trawlers. (7) In his letter to Minister Bradshaw, Sir Lawton said, “Protection of the deep seas, on the basis of sound scientific analysis including the application of precaution, needs to be urgently incorporated into international law. We therefore endorse the call for you to exercise your leadership during the UK Presidency of the European Union to negotiate a moratorium on deep-sea bottom trawl fishing at the United Nations General Assembly this year to protect vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems and species from irreversible damage and loss.” Leading Canadian scientists have also sent a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. (8) In a speech in May, Mr. Martin called on ministers attending an international high-level fisheries governance conference to “seize this historic occasion, and begin the process to stop the rape of our fisheries and oceans, once and for all. I’m asking you to come together – as a global community – to write the next chapter in the history of the world’s fisheries and oceans, and to restore their once-proud place in our cultures, in our nations, and in our lives.” The scientists’ letter, dated 17 October, called on the Prime Minister to support the high seas moratorium, noting that “it would be in keeping with Canada’s national and international commitments to biodiversity protection.” Unfortunately, some governments continue to fight for delays despite the inevitable need to take action. The DSCC has obtained a copy of a position paper apparently being circulated by Japan, which argues amongst other things, ironically, that the call for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling is “without scientific justification.” (9) Obviously Japan isn’t listening to the wider scientific community. Fisheries negotiations resume again on 24 October. A DSCC team is present in New York pushing for the moratorium – knowing how strongly scientists feel about this issue has only increased their resolve.

(1) ICES describes itself as “the organisation that coordinates and promotes marine research in the North Atlantic. This includes adjacent seas such as the Baltic Sea and North Sea. ICES acts as a meeting point for a community of more than 1600 marine scientists from 19 countries around the North Atlantic.” (2) Overhaul deep-sea fisheries, sharks in trouble, good and bad news for other fish stocks, ICES press release, 17 October 2005 (pdf)  (3) Scientists confirm: deepsea fisheries are in deep deep trouble, Greenpeace press release, 18 October 2005 (4) WWF calls for urgent closure of all deep-sea fisheries, WWF press release, 17 October 2005 (5) Open letter signed by 50 leading scientists to Minister Ben Bradshaw, 13 October 2005 (pdf) (6) Letter in support of the open letter from scientists concerning protection of deep-sea biodiversity from Sir John Lawton, Chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 17 October 2005 (pdf) (7) Letter from Canadian scientists to Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin (pdf) (8)Japanese paper | DSCC Response