At the United Nations meeting taking place this week in New York to discuss ecosystem approaches and oceans, Palau has presented a new proposal for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. In the approach to the meeting, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Brazil confirmed their support for a UN moratorium, as science continues to unravel the mysteries and vulnerabilty of deep-sea species and habitats.
This week, Ministers are meeting in New York to discuss ecosystem approaches and oceans in New York at the seventh meeting of the UN Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea (UNICPOLOS-7 or Consultative Process). In its opening statement, Palau, one of the first nations to call for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling reiterated its call, noting that lack of knowledge cannot justify inaction. It presented a new proposal for consensus on the issue. Stuart Beck said: “Bottom trawling is widely recognized as the most destructive and indiscriminate fishing practice known to mankind – for just a few fish destined for niche markets, trawlers raze associated coral, sponge, and other flora and fauna. And, as more and more countries close their national waters to bottom trawlers these vessels are being pushed more and more often into international waters destroying whole ecosystems before scientists even have a chance to learn about them.” “Yet despite this threat, there is no ecosystem-sensitive approach, or even any regulation at all, for bottom trawling throughout most of our shared international waters.
This must not go unheeded by this conference… “In Palau it is more than just a saying that “we do not inherit the earth from our parents, but we borrow it from our children,” it is a deeply held belief. And the Pacific philosophy that the oceans unite us rather than divide us, is one which embraces the spirit of our discussions this week. We look forward to these discussions here at the United Nations as we seek real solutions for protecting the ecosystems that bind us all together.” In February, new results from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge Ecosystems Program (MAR-ECO) show that that deep-sea pelagic fish may be gathering at underwater features such as ridges and seamounts, to spawn before dispersing. Presented at the Ocean Sciences meeting in Honolulu, the findings have important implications for how deep-sea ecosystems should be managed to prevent devastation by deep trawling activities. The findings imply that seamounts are ridges are likely to be critical to the preservation of the species involved. Unprotected, they are likely to become primary trawling targets, with devastating effects on spawning aggregations and thus on populations. “Deep-sea fisheries are exploiting the last refuges for commercial fish species and should not be seen as a replacement for declining resources in shallower waters. Instead, deep-water habitats are new candidates for conservation, ” concluded a report released in March. Canadian scientists have shown that five species of deep-sea fish have declined over a 17-year period [1978-1994] in the Canadian waters of the northwest Atlantic to such an extent that they meet the IUCN [World Conservation Union] criteria for being critically endangered.
The scientists conclude, “Our results indicate that urgent action is needed for the sustainable management of deep-sea fisheries…” Sharks and rays have been added to the 2006 IUCN Red List. IUCN says “This confirms suspicions that these mainly slow-growing species are exceptionally susceptible to over-fishing and are disappearing at an unprecedented rate across the globe.” As the science continues to highlight the vulnerability of deep-sea life, the calls for action to protect it are increasing. In Feburary, the EU called for strong, precautionary measures to protect biodiversity in the high seas. Speaking at a UNGA working group on biodiversity in New York in February, the Head of the EU delegation, Dr Gerhard Hafner said: “The EU views that evidence of actual destruction of ecosystems is overwhelming and that we know sufficient about growing human pressure on marine biodiversity in [areas beyond natural jurisdiction] to warrant taking further steps on international cooperation and coordination for its conservation and sustainable use… on the basis of the precautionary principle and on the basis of the current status of science – we have to act on both the implementation and governance gaps. We have a very impressive and authoritative information basis to warrant those actions.” The most immediate and serious threat to high seas ecosystems is bottom trawl fishing. Many delegations attending the UNGA meeting, including the US, Pacific Islands nations and Norway, all stated that the impacts of destructive fishing practices on vulnerable marine ecosystems is one of the most urgent problems for the international community to resolve. In March, EC Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas said, “We should put in place an interim prohibition of destructive fishing practices in international waters, including bottom trawling, that has adverse effects on vulnerable marine ecosystems.”
However, these words have yet to translate into action from the European Union, which is responsible for about 60% of high seas bottom trawling world-wide. Influenced primarily by bottom trawl fishing nations Spain, Portugal and Poland, the EU has been opposed to a moratorium. However, recently Portugal seemed to agree that high seas bottom trawling is a major threat to marine biodiversity. At a DSCC workshop organised in Lisbon, State Secretary for the Environment, Dr. Humberto Rosa said: “High seas bottom trawling is an unsustainable activity. We have a strategic opportunity. We have a large fish consumption, we are fishers too and we want to conserve marine biodiversity.” Furthermore, since April an increasing number of European governments have added their voice to those European countries in favour of a temporary halt to high seas bottom trawling, with Austria, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden openly stating their support for a UN moratorium on the practice.
In May, for example, in a letter to Greenpeace, the Belgian government wrote: “Given that Marine Protected Areas will not provide a short-term solution for the large-scale damage caused by bottom trawling, Belgium finds it necessary to urgently adopt short term measures within an international framework. Later this year the UNGA will discuss the possibility of a moratorium on destructive fishing practices on the high seas, including bottom trawling. In an attempt to stop further destruction of the ecologically valuable deep sea, Belgium is calling for such an initiative (moratorium) at the UN level and at the preparatory European meetings.” Also in May, speaking at the UN Fish Stocks Agreement Review Conference in New York, Brazil included the following statement in its opening remarks: “As regards the question of high seas bottom trawling, Brazil supports a moratorium of such activity in high seas beyond national jurisdiction.” Norway said the Conference should recommend that States prohibit their vessels from bottom trawl fishing in unregulated areas of the high seas – areas where there are no regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) with the authority to manage deep-water fisheries. The Norwegian delegation further stated that where RFMOs exist which do have the authority to manage bottom fisheries, they should do so consistent with the UN Fish Stocks Agreement in relation to its biodiversity and ecosystem provisions. “The evidence for urgent action to stop high seas bottom trawling is stronger than ever,” said Matthew Gianni, DSCC political adviser. “The calls for a UN moratorium are becoming increasingly overwhelming. The EU cannot continue to allow itself to be held hostage by a few bottom trawling nations and a handful of fishing boats operating on the high seas that account for a tiny fraction of the global fishing fleet.”