NEAFC fails to protect vulnerable deepwater fish and corals from bottom trawling

Date: November 25, 2005

The North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) has failed to further reduce fishing effort on vulnerable deep-sea fish stocks and to protect cold-water coral reefs from deep sea bottom trawling, against the recent advice of scientists.

Although NEAFC agreed to include long-term conservation of fish stocks and ecosystems as part of its remit, it decided to maintain deep-sea fishing effort in North East Atlantic waters at the same level as in 2005 – a situation that the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES) clearly indicates is unsustainable. “Although we welcome NEAFC’s agreement to adopt an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management, we are concerned that this is just a good will gesture. NEAFC should have made some brave and timely decisions if they were to stand by their commitment towards long-term conservation of fisheries resources” said Dr Bryce Beukers-Stewart, Fisheries Policy Officer with the Marine Conservation Society (MCS). (1) In October, the International Council on the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) called for “a complete overhaul of deep-sea fisheries”. ICES stated that all their evidence indicates that current levels of fishing effort on North East Atlantic deep-sea fish stocks are much too high. The organisation’s scientific advisory committee recommended cutting back all existing deep-sea fisheries to low levels. Deep-sea fish have slow growth rates, low reproductive levels and are typically long-lived making them the most vulnerable of all fish to over-fishing. Orange Roughy, the target of one of the most important deep-sea fisheries, is one of the best studied deep-sea fish. Around the world its serial depletion is testimony to the vulnerability of deep-sea fish to deep sea bottom trawling. (2) Some scientists consider that deep-sea fish stocks cannot be fished sustainably at all. According to Professor Callum Roberts from the University of York in England, “There is probably no such thing as an economically viable deep sea fishery that is also sustainable. The productivity of deep sea life is too low, and the expense of fishing in the deep sea too high for companies to make profits while also protecting fish stocks.” ICES also confirmed the presence of sizeable cold water coral reefs on the Hatton Bank and additionally recommended that NEAFC close a number of large areas on the Rockall Bank to towed bottom fishing gear in order to protect fragile cold-water coral reefs (Lophelia spp.). Although these closures were backed to a large extent by proposals from the European Union and Russia, they were blocked by several Contracting Parties in the final stages of the meeting.

In a letter to NEAFC, MCS and Seas at Risk (SAR) raised their concerns regarding the case-by-case approach adopted by NEAFC last year by which limited areas within the NEAFC area have been temporarily closed to bottom trawling (3). “It is possible that the closures NEAFC agreed to last year have caused displacement of effort to, for example, Rockall and Hatton Banks, both of which have turned out to have similarly sensitive habitats.” In its 2005 report, ICES recommends permanently closing up to five areas on the Rockall Bank where sizeable cold water coral reefs have been found. Given the potential consequences of diverting trawling from closed areas to other vulnerable but unmapped habitats, MCS and SAR called on NEAFC to close all areas deeper than 200m to bottom trawling, except for areas where it is scientifically established that bottom trawling will not impact vulnerable deep sea habitats. “NEAFC had the chance this year to stand at the forefront of modern fisheries management, put their words into action and apply the precautionary approach they agreed to. This lack of action will ensure further damage to the precious marine ecosystem of the deep sea, before it is even fully described,” said Dr Monica Verbeek, Fisheries Policy Officer with Seas At Risk.

Notes: (1) The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) is a UK Charity dedicated to the protection of the marine environment and its wildlife. MCS is a member of Seas at Risk (SAR), an independent non-governmental European federation of environmental organisations concerned with the protection and restoration of the marine environment. SAR is a member of DSCC and has been permitted to attend as observers to the Annual Meetings of NEAFC since 2002. More information is available from the following websites:Marine Conservation Society Seas at Risk NEAFC (2) Orange Roughy occurs on deep banks, mid-ocean ridges, and seamounts in most oceans but is especially abundant near New Zealand and Tasmania at depths of 700 to 1,800 m. This deep-sea fish lives to 150 years, and its average age at sexual maturity is 24, making it extremely slow to recover from fishing. In just over a decade, Orange Roughy populations in the New Zealand fishery collapsed to less than 20 percent of pre-exploitation abundance. The targeting of these most vulnerable groups of deep-sea fish species and the inherent vulnerability of all deep-sea fish makes high seas bottom trawling fisheries one of the least sustainable fisheries on Earth. Why the World needs a time-out on high seas bottom trawling, DSCC report, June 2005 (pdf) English | Spanish (3) SAR & MCS letter to NEAFC, 3 November 2005 (pdf)