“If all nations that purport to support urgent action to protect the biodiversity of the international waters of the world’s oceans from bottom trawl fishing, were as consistent and persistent as the Republic of Palau, the deep sea habitats of the high seas would undoubtedly already be safe from the fishing practice that continues to ravage the extraordinarily rich, unique and vulnerable biodiversity found in the deep ocean beyond countries’ national waters,” said Deep Sea Conservation Coalition political advisor, Matthew Gianni.
The Republic of Palau and Costa Rica were was the first nations to call on the United Nations to adopt a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling at the General Assembly in 2004. Since then the Pacific Island nation has persistently pressed for action, most recently at the meeting of the 8th Conference of the Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity held in Brazil in March. There, it continued the call for consensus around an interim prohibition on bottom trawling in the world’s oceans beyond national jurisdictions where there are no multilateral Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMO) with the authority to regulate the practice. “We have no higher issue on our agenda than the preservation of our natural resources,” Palau’s President Tommy Remensgesau has pledged. At the meeting of the UN General Assembly’s marine biodiversity working group held in New York in February, quoting President Remensgesau, Palau’s Ambassador to the UN, Stuart Beck stated, “the success or failure of the United Nations this and every year can be distilled to whether we take action on a mere handful of pressing issues. Surely this destruction of some of the richest parts of the deep seas by just a small fleet of bottom trawlers must rank among this year’s global priorities.” The Pacific is home to many of the greatest coral reefs in the world, not only shallow water tropic reefs but deep ocean coral reefs found on many of the thousands of underwater mountains (seamounts) in the region. While the reefs within national waters are increasingly being brought under protection, there is no RFMO to regulate fishing in the international waters of the Pacific. Palau understands just how richly diverse, interdependent, and vulnerable these ecosystems are – and how they are threatened. “To satisfy just a fractional market, and before we can even know what medicines and genetic potential exists down there, trawlers are razing seamounts and their corals by scraping weighted nets across the bottom to catch the fish living in the waters just above.
We witness our peril surfacing with these trawls.” March saw a spate of actions by nations to restrict bottom trawling within their own jurisdictions. The Pacific island nation of Kiribati announced the creation of the first marine park with deep-sea habitat, including seamounts to protect more than 120 species of coral and 520 species of fish. The United States banned bottom trawling in nearly 150,000 square miles of federal waters off the country’s Pacific West Coast to protect “essential fish habitat”. And Palau’s President Remengesau signed into domestic law, a ban on bottom trawling that makes the practice in Palau’s waters or by any citizen of Palau anywhere in the world, illegal – imposing both civil and criminal penalties. “We are legislating out of a responsible concern for our seas and seabed and their vulnerable coral habitats and deep water fishstocks”, Palau said. “If these measures are good enough for our own waters, what is the excuse for so disrespecting the waters beyond? It is time now to bridge the gap for the deep seas.” Palau has also led the effort in the Pacific to achieve a consensus by countries to introduce an interim prohibition on high seas bottom trawling at the international level. Pacific Island leaders attending the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in October 2005 adopted a statement on high seas bottom trawling, further to a proposal by Palau. The Leaders noted that they were “seriously concerned” about the problem and agreed to develop an appropriate legal framework for consideration of the Forum in 2006. The PIFFA and South Pacific Commission were tasked with the implementation of this decision. The Pacific Islands Forum, in a joint statement delivered by Papua New Guinea to the UN General Assembly Debate on Oceans and Fisheries in November 2005 said: “We are well aware of, and firmly support, the need to take urgent action to prevent and manage the effects of destructive fishing practices, including bottom-trawling, that has adverse impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems. We are seriously concerned about the destruction caused by these activities.” Bottom trawl fishing nations within the Forum, i.e. Australia and New Zealand, have tempered official PIF statements, and New Zealand has stated that it would support a high seas bottom trawling moratorium only if other fishing countries were prepared to do the same. “It’s high time countries like New Zealand as well as and the European Union and other countries operating high seas bottom trawl fleets found the political will to take the lead in promoting effective conservation and protection of the biodiversity of the high seas,” Matthew Gianni said. Speaking recently at the Convention on Biological Diversity, EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said, “We should put in place an interim prohibition of destructive fishing practices in international waters, including bottom trawling.” However, Dimas’ statement and statements by Dr. Gerhard Hafner of Austria on behalf of the EU to the UN working group on biodiversity in New York in Feburary, while positive, have yet to translate into comprehensive international action, including the effective regulation of the EU’s own fleets, primarily vessels from Spain, that are bottom trawl fishing on the high seas. In January, the EU, together with other Mediterranean countries, took action to protect sensitive deep-sea corals in three ecologically-important deep sea areas in the international waters of the Mediterranean off the waters of Italy, Cyprus and Egypt.