Protect the high seas from an act of insanity

Date: March 16, 2006

The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition has congratulated Achim Steiner on his imminent appointment as Executive Director of UNEP. In his current post as Director General of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), Mr. Steiner has called deep sea bottom trawling an act of insanity and said “We must protect the high seas before it’s too late”.

Mr. Steiner has been formally nominated by UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan subject to the final approval of the UN General Assembly. “With high seas biodiversity so sorely in need of a champion, it is a timely announcement”, said DSCC co-ordinator, Kelly Rigg. Although scientists agree on the overwhelmingly destructive nature of high seas bottom trawling (1) and political momentum from States for urgent action continues to grow (2), the threat to marine biodiversity from this fishing practice is overshadowed by the threat of political inertia on the issue. In February, the European Commission told a United Nations meeting in New York that the evidence of actual destruction of ecosystems is overwhelming, that there is clearly felt sense of urgency and that action must be taken.  However, in a subsequent international fisheries meeting in Wellington, the EU did not suggest specific measures for an interim halt to bottom trawling.  In the meantime, Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, member Greenpeace has revealed that European governments are turning a blind eye to unregulated fishing vessels flying European flags – in 75% of the high seas, deep sea fisheries are totally unregulated.  In the absence of political action, Greenpeace today stopped a trawler blacklisted by the European Union from leaving port in Poland – the fifth such vessel to be locked up in a week. (3) Mr. Steiner has said that “deep sea bottom trawling is an act of insanity and should become subject to prosecution. The DSCC looks forward to co-operating with Mr. Steiner to ensure that stopping this insanity becomes a UNEP priority in 2006. During his time with IUCN, Mr. Steiner oversaw the organization’s commitment to strong protection measures for the high seas. He has said, “We are just beginning to scratch the surface in terms of our knowledge of open ocean species and ecosystems at all depths, and realize the urgency of protecting them from degradation through over-harvesting and destructive fishing practices such as deep sea bottom trawling. We must protect the high seas before it’s too late.” Highlighting just how little we know about life in our oceans’ depths, a recent marine expedition by Mid-Atlantic Ridge Ecosystems program (MAR-ECO), discovered 30 new species. (4) MAR-ECO’s results also suggest that deep-sea pelagic fish may be gathering at underwater features such as ridges and seamounts (underwater mountains) to spawn.

The research challenges traditional ideas of these fish as nomadic wanderers and has important implications for how deep-sea ecosystems should be managed to prevent devastation from bottom trawling. Another recent discovery is a furry lobster found in the South Pacific, dubbed the “Yeti Crab” because of its white colour and pincers covered with sinuous, hair-like strands. Named Kiwa hirsuta after the goddess of crustaceans in Polynesian mythology, the new discovery was made in waters 2,300 metres deep, 1,500 km south of Easter Island. It is believed to live around some Pacific deep sea hydrothermal vents that spew out fluids toxic to many animals. (5) The views Mr. Steiner expressed within IUCN are consistent with those of his predecessor at UNEP, Dr. Klaus Toepfer, who said: “Everyone must be aware [that] without intact coral reefs, warm and cold water reefs, you will not be able to restore fish stocks fully” (World Oceans Day 2004). (5) A recent UNEP report by some of the world’s leading experts on deep-sea corals clearly identified that: “Undoubtedly the greatest and most irreversible damage is due to the increasing intensity of deep water trawling that relies on the deployment of heavy gear which ‘steamrollers’ over the sea floor.” (6) In order to protect the largely undiscovered and fascinating world of the Earth’s last frontier, the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition is calling for an immediate UN moratorium on high seas bottom trawling.

Notes: (1) Scientists’ statement (2) Momentum in support of a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling continues to grow: Addendum to Political Momentum is Building Rapidly, DSCC briefing, January 2006 (pdf)   (3) Greenpeace catches the one that got away – another pirate ship is stopped in harbour, 15 March 2006, Greenpeace press release (pdf) A fishy identity crisis, 14 March 2006, Greenpeace International website. Greenpeace stops pirate fishing vessels in European port, 11 March 2006, Greenpeace Defending Our Oceans website. (4) Atlantic Expeditions uncover secret sex life of deep sea nomads, MAR-ECO website. Expedition reveals secret lives of deep-sea fish. Mysterious beasts gather to spawn; ecosystem richer than thought, 6 March 2006, Live Science (5) Furry ‘lobster’ found in Pacific, 8 March 2006, BBC (6) Cold-water Coral Reefs: Out of Sight, No longer out of mind