Campaigners for an immediate UN moratorium on high seas bottom trawl fishing read with growing alarm the article “Decades of dumping chemical arms leave a risky legacy” by John Bull (1). The article details how decades ago, the US army dumped huge quantities of obsolete chemical weapons in the oceans off the US, and, get ready for the best part, they don’t remember exactly where they dumped them.
According to the article, “The Army now admits that it secretly dumped 64 million pounds of nerve and mustard agents into the sea, along with 400,000 chemical-filled bombs, land mines and rockets and more than 500 tons of radioactive waste – either tossed overboard or packed into the holds of scuttled vessels.” The article notes that “A drop of nerve agent can kill within a minute. When released in the ocean, it lasts up to six weeks, killing every organism it touches before breaking down into its non-lethal chemical components. “Mustard gas can be fatal. When exposed to seawater, it forms a concentrated, encrusted gel that lasts for at least five years, rolling around on the ocean floor, killing or contaminating sea life.” “Market for Contaminated Deep Sea Fish Collapses; Obsolete Bottom Trawlers Enlisted to Search and Recover Dumped Weapons”Unfortunately, these deadly chemicals are now finding their way out of the deep like creatures from a 1950s B movie, including through the fishing nets of bottom trawlers. Deep-sea fish may no longer be ‘the healthy alternative’. And who knows when a scientist, searching for the cure to some heinous disease may instead encounter toxic tube worms or deep-sea corals and sponges that glow in the dark – though not because of any special adaptation to living in the cold, pressurised world that is the deep-ocean. Bottom Trawling – Always Bad, Now Even Worse The reality is that our oceans have been used as a dumping ground for generations. As new technology has evolved enabling us to fish and explore deeper and further out to sea than ever before. Nobody really knows just how much and which countries (and companies) have dumped their toxic waste over the side hoping that in sinking to the bottom of the sea, it would disappear forever. And nobody has thought of ways to clean it up. But perhaps bottom trawlers are going to do this for them. Last year, after all, a bottom trawler caught a submarine, so hauling up some old barrels of muck from the ocean floor should be no problem. “Greenpeace: Protecting Bottom Trawlers from…Themselves” If all of the water was sucked out of the high seas and we were left looking at the remaining landscape, there is every indication that among the lush pockets of biodiversity, we would find the detritus of the last 70 years showing the impacts of the industrialisation of our oceans.
For vast swaths of the ocean floor, the image we would see would be of ploughed land, left infertile and barren. Now, it appears, we would find much of the area contaminated too, heaped with barrels of oozing gunk and gelatinous mud. It is high time that the old adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ stopped being applied to this global commons. Establishing high seas marine reserves would ensure that the pockets of biodiversity could be preserved and even grow. Regulating deep-sea bioprospecting would ensure that the benefits from the genetic diversity of this global commons could be shared equitably by all. But stopping bottom trawling has to be the first step towards ensuring the long-term health and vitality of life in the deep-ocean. And, it seems, could very well end up being the “healthy alternative” for humans and the oceans we depend on. The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition is an alliance of over 50 international organizations, representing millions of people in countries around the world, that is calling for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling.