Protection for High Seas Biodiversity – Time to Get Serious

Date: February 13, 2006

Two key meetings are taking place this week which will set the course for the protection of biodiversity on the high seas. Starting today in New York, the UN General Assembly’s ‘Ad Hoc Open-ended Informal Working Group to study issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction’ (Biodiversity Working Group) will begin to examine a number of serious gaps in international oceans law. As a result of these gaps, for example, bottom trawl fishing in 75% of the high seas is virtually unregulated.

Several NGOs monitoring the meeting are urging delegates to consider developing a new implementing agreement under the Law of the Sea Convention to ensure the consistent management of human activities in areas beyond national jurisdiction in a comprehensive and integrated fashion. They have set out a series of principles which should be included in such an agreement, including the need for ecosystem based management and application of the precautionary approach amongst others. Negotiating new agreements take time, however. It will certainly be a matter of years, not months, before a new high seas regime will be agreed let alone implemented. For this reason, the DSCC continues to call for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling so that there will be some biodiversity left to protect by the time a new agreement is in place. Another approach to closing the gaps and addressing the impacts of high seas bottom trawling is being advocated by many governments. They point to the need for existing regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) to get the competence to regulate bottom fisheries and protect biodiversity as soon as possible. Where there are no RFMOs, they advocate creating them. Australia, New Zealand and Chile are taking this approach to the international waters of the Tasman Sea and South Pacific Ocean and have initiated negotiations to develop a new RFMO for the region. The first negotiating session opens tomorrow in Wellington, with over 150 delegates from more than 25 countries participating.

A key issue on the agenda will be possible interim measures to protect biodiversity while discussions continue and sustainable solutions can be found. On the eve of the negotiations, Greenpeace released 185 images taken on board bottom trawlers by fisheries observers. The images were obtained from the New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries under the Official Information Act. The photos show a wide diversity of deep-sea life that is being dragged up from the deep-sea floor including ancient Gorgonian corals and CITES-listed endangered black coral. Industry spokespersons have previously argued that this sort of by-catch is the exception rather than the norm – an assertion which the photos appear to have negated. “These photos are embarrassing for the fishing industry and the Government who have failed to support progressive moves to protect deep-sea life from bottom trawling in international waters at the United Nations,” said Greenpeace oceans campaigner Carmen Gravatt.