Deep sea life can be saved – if the international community acts now

Date: March 20, 2006

Pioneering deep-sea scientist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence, Sylvia Dr. Earle explained why she believes deep-sea life must be protected from one of the world’s most destructive fishing practices – deep sea bottom trawling.

“The relevance of life in the deep sea to life elsewhere on the planet may seem remote to many people, but it doesn’t matter where on the planet you are, the deep sea matters. We live in a totally connected ecosystem. Right now, we are destroying ecosystems that we don’t know how to put back together again. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. We might wish that we had saved them for whatever reasons – as part of our life support system, because they contain chemicals that are valuable to us as medicines, because there are answers to questions that we want to know about the origin of life itself. There are a thousand ways that a natural system can be of benefit to humankind.” Once thought to be relatively devoid of life, marine scientists now know that the deep oceans harbor a vast abundance of unique life, including many new species that have yet to be discovered. But there is growing concern within the scientific community that many deep-sea species may be vulnerable to extinction as a result of bottom trawl fishing, before scientists have even had a chance to discover them. Nevertheless, Dr. Earle remains optimistic that deep-sea life can be saved – if the international community acts now. “The real underlying problem relates to people simply being unaware. They don’t know the real cost of the orange roughy that appears on their plate, do not know that in the process of getting that fish to market, corals that may be a thousand years old have been sacrificed, that the seafloor itself has been essentially mowed down in order to catch the fish that come to market. If they did understand they might make different choices, better choices and opt not to take creatures that may be as old as your great grandparents by the time they come to your plate.” The momentum for change is growing. Last year, Dr. Earle joined a number of leading deep ocean scientists on a tour around Europe to bring their concerns directly to decision makers. Dr. Earle met with key members of the Spanish government and spoke at a conference in Paris’ Oceanographic Institute attended by over 200 of France’s key marine scientists and undersea explorers. “I think that we had a receptive audience. I think the people that I met with and I believe the same is true in other countries – that when people know what is happening, they want to do the right thing and I believe there was a reaction in a positive way to try to understand what’s happening and to take actions that will perhaps result in some positive changes.” Spain and other European Union countries take the lion’s share of the world’s bottom trawl catch and have been a major obstacle to the EU supporting a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. Last year, however, France announced it will support a moratorium in unregulated areas – that’s around 75% of the world’s oceans. In the UK, Canada and Australia, top marine scientists have called on their governments to support a moratorium. And Dr. Earle is one of over 1400 scientists from sixty-nine countries around the world, who have signed a statement urging the United Nations to establish a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. “There is a move afoot right now – I’m a part of it – to recommend to the international community that we have a moratorium on bottom trawling in the high seas. Just this single action right now, while the level of trawling is still quite low, while only a few nations are involved, while only a small amount of what is taken from the sea comes from this source, while there’s still time to pull back and just give ourselves a chance to know the value of the deep sea and perhaps we can be wiser about how we take advantage of our new access to the ocean and put on the balance sheet values other than simply turning these wondrous creatures and extraordinary ecosystems into pounds of protein.”

Though it has already had a devastating impact, the use of bottom trawls on the high seas is still only in its early stages. With a fleet of no more than 300 bottom trawlers worldwide, it is not too late to put a stop to high seas bottom trawling – before depleted fisheries within national waters and increasing demand, push the industry to expand further. In 2004 and again in 2005, the United Nations failed to call a halt to high seas bottom trawling. Instead it called on nations to take “urgent action” to protect deep-sea ecosystems from destruction as a result of this practice. In 2006 the UN will conduct a review of actions taken. 2006 is the year the UN must tackle this problem head on and high seas fishing nations must be persuaded to stop bottom trawl fishing in international waters. Only then can we ensure the protection of the fascinating and little-known underwater world of our deepest oceans – including corals that may be thousands of years old and fish that may be older than our grandparents.


Notes: (1) Eleven nations – Denmark/Faroe Islands, Estonia, Iceland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Russia and Spain – took approximately 95 percent of the reported high seas bottom trawl catch in 2001. EU countries (including the newly admitted Baltic states) were responsible for approximately 60 percent of the total. Spain, the most aggressive bottom trawl nation, accounts for approximately two-thirds of the EU catch and 40 percent of the global high seas bottom trawl catch in 2001. From High Seas Bottom Trawl Fisheries and their Impacts on the Biodiversity of Vulnerable Deep-Sea Ecosystems: Options for International Action. Report prepared by Matthew Gianni for IUCN, NRDC, WWF & Conservation International. (2) Over 50 organisations around the world have joined the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition and are calling for a UN moratorium on bottom trawling until the nations of the world can establish strong management measures for deep-sea fisheries and protect high seas biodiversity.

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