Scientists call on Australia to support the moratorium

Date: November 4, 2005

58 Australian marine scientists have sent a letter to the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard urging him to “take advantage of an historic opportunity to secure significant protection for the world’s deep-ocean ecosystems on the high seas” by promoting the negotiation of a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling at this year’s United Nations General Assembly. (1) A week earlier, over 100 international marine scientists, conservationists and biodiversity experts attending the International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC1) sent a letter to Australian Ministers for the Environment and Fisheries, Senators Ian Campbell and Ian MacDonald, urging them to stop deep sea destruction by supporting a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. (2) The letter was also sent to Heads of State attending the Pacific Islands Forum and delegates to the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which met last week in Hobart.

The letters follow unprecedented calls for action by their governments from scientists in the UK and Canada. “Deep sea bottom trawling is an act of insanity,” said Achim Steiner, Director General of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Steiner, attending IMPAC1 in Geelong, Australia, was one of the signatories to the letter. He said he thought it would not be long before this destructive fishing practice would be subject to prosecution. (3) The need for action on high seas bottom trawling received considerable attention at IMPAC, with various speakers calling for a moratorium. These included Graeme Kelleher, founder and first chief manager of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), renowned deep-sea diver and explorer, Dr. Sylvia Earle and Professor Callum Roberts, marine conservation biologist from the University of York in the UK. Professor Roberts was in Australia for meetings with politicians, government officials and community groups as part of an ongoing scientists’ tour to raise awareness about the destruction of deep sea bottom trawling in international waters.  “Bottom trawling is like clearfelling old growth forests and throwing away the trees simply to catch a few birds. It is more like strip mining than harvesting,” Professor Roberts said. In Canberra, he asked the Australian government to support an immediate UN moratorium on bottom trawling. Although Australia has yet to state its position on the moratorium publicly, it has so far been resistant to short-term protection measures. Australian Seafood Industry Council chairman Bob Pennington defended management of deep-sea trawling by Australian ships and said the body opposed a moratorium but that it “would be totally opposed to anybody trawling the surface of a seamount.” (4) Yet that is precisely what bottom trawl gear is designed to do. Seamounts are underwater mountains around which deep-sea life concentrates and which are, therefore, often targeted by bottom trawl fishing vessels. Although only two Australian fishing vessels are believed to engage in trawling of seamounts Professor Roberts said there are more than 200 doing so worldwide. Fragile deep-water ecosystems such as coral forests and sponge beds that provide the habitat for a variety of deep sea life, stand no chance against steel doors designed to keep the net on the seafloor, that together with heavy rollers weigh several tons. After heavy trawling, the surfaces of seamounts are reduced to mostly sand and bare rock or coral rubble. “Bottom trawling is environmental vandalism, but also economic madness. By destroying the very marine communities that support the fish being targeted, the trawl fishers are wiping out their own livelihoods,” Professor Roberts said. “Urgent action is needed, as the damage being caused by bottom trawling could be permanent,” he explained. “Even if banned now the vulnerable ecosystems could take decades or centuries to recover. (Among) all of the deep sea fish species that have been depleted to date, there has been no evidence of any recovery by them.”

Notes: (1)Letter from 58 Australian marine scientists of 4 November to Australian Prime Minister, John Howard (pdf). (2) Open letter signed by 109 international marine scientists, conservationists and biodiversity experts attending IMPAC1 (pdf). (3) Nations Urged Think As Big As The Oceans Are Vast, World Conservation Union (IUCN) press release, 25 October 2005 (pdf).  (4) New calls to end deep-sea trawling, Herald Sun, 19 October 2005

More information:  Deep Sea Threats, an interview with Professor Callum Roberts, 18 October 2005, Radio National Breakfast news