Time to deal definitively with the problem of high seas bottom trawling

Date: June 19, 2006

The 7th UN Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and Law of the Sea met in New York from 12-16 June to discuss the ecosystem approach to managing human activities in the oceans.

Throughout the meeting many countries reinforced the need to deal effectively with the threat to marine ecosystems from bottom trawl fishing on the high seas with the G77+China stating that in the interest of a more equitable approach to the exploitation of the deep-sea and the need to preserve the marine environment for the benefit of future and present generations “we must deal with this issue [of bottom trawling in areas beyond national jurisdictions] definitively during the 61st session of the General Assembly.”

Amongst others, Chile stated that countries should refrain from allowing bottom trawl fishing on the high seas where there are no regional regulations in place. The European Community, in an intervention made early in the week, challenged countries such as Australia and New Zealand involved in the next round of negotiations (in July) for a regional fisheries management organization in the South Indian Ocean to agree to an ‘interim suspension’ of certain practices in the region – in a clear reference to high seas bottom trawl fishing. “It is clear that by far the majority of countries now expect decisive action to be agreed by the UN General Assembly later this year. Nothing short of a moratorium on high seas bottom trawl fishing will ensure the protection of deep sea corals and other unique and vulnerable ecosystems in the international waters of the world’s oceans” said Matthew Gianni, Political Advisor to the Deep Sea Conservation Coaltion (DSCC).

On Tuesday June 13th, between 100 and 150 guests attended a reception hosted by the DSCC at the United Nations where guest speaker Fabian Cousteau, the grandson of Jacques Cousteau, described his ocean experience and personal commitment to preserving the deep oceans from bottom trawling. Fabian, who made his first dive at the age of four and began exploring the oceans at the age of seven, represented Oceans Future, a member of the DSCC. Lisa Speer of the National Resource Defense Council and Karen Sack of Greenpeace, both members of the DSCC, invited delegates to join a toast to the end of high seas bottom trawling with a ‘Canyonbuster’ cocktail and a new animation was shown to delegates featuring a giant zeppelin whose captain destroys whole cities and farms in search of a turkey sandwich. (1) After the reception and with the special permission of IMAX Corporation, the IMAX film ‘Deep Sea’ received its UN Premier before an enthusiastic audience, and was described by one delegate as “truly awe inspiring”. (2) During the Thursday morning session, which focused on cooperation and coordination, Bill Wareham from the Suzuki Foundation (also a member of the DSCC), made a statement on behalf of a group of NGOs. (3) “Immediate interim measures must be put in place to safeguard marine life”, Wareham said. “A moratorium on high seas bottom trawling should be viewed as a key element or building block of an ecosystem based approach and will help preserve marine biodiversity while measures to more effectively and comprehensively implement the ecosystem-based management approach are developed and a representative system of marine protected areas is put into place.” With regard to the reform of RFMOs, Wareham noted that in the case of deep-water bottom fisheries on the high seas, only five RFMOS currently have the legal competence to regulate deep-sea bottom fisheries in their regulatory areas. Of these, only the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and the Southeast Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (SEAFO) are specifically mandated to implement the ecosystem approach, although SEAFO has yet to apply this approach to its convention area and CCAMLR struggles to deal with the scourge of illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing. Wareham also called for immediate application and implementation of the precautionary principle and ecosystem approaches, under an implementing agreement to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). “To reform the RFMO system to ensure competence in ecosystem based management in all high seas areas, fundamental changes are required. This will take time” said Wareham, and in the meantime a moratorium on bottom trawl fishing on the high seas is needed. Both WWF and IUCN also called for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawl fishing.

Government Statements Chile stated that “taking into account the lack of regulations on the high seas…States must be encouraged to refrain from authorizing their nationals to conduct fishing activities using destructive practices, including bottom trawling, that has a serious effect on the biodiversity and marine ecosystems, particularly on seamounts, hydrothermal vents, and cold water corals. We consider that such a measure should be in place until adequate measures for conservation and management have been adopted, in accordance with international law, by relevant multilateral bodies.” The G77+China said that “…another issue that has come up in this meeting is bottom trawling with some proposing a moratorium on bottom trawling in areas beyond national jurisdictions where there are no RFMOs. The position of the G-77 and China, taking into account the need to preserve the marine environment for the benefit of future and present generations, as well the commitment by the global community to ensure a more equitable sharing of the benefits of exploitation of resources from the deep sea is that we must deal with this issue definitively during the 61st session of the General Assembly.” Argentina and Namibia supported the G77 statement. The Bahamas said “If there is science-based evidence, and my delegation believes that there is, which shows that long-line fishing, bottom trawling, anthropogenic noise levels, and over-fishing are activities which are destructive to the world’s marine ecosystem, then it appears logical that these activities should be curtailed in the short term and replaced in the long term, by others which support rather than destroy the sustainability of the system.” However, Japan said that without scientific information to establish that a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling would solve the problem it could not support interim measures. Lisa Speer, responding on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council noted that many governments have taken action within their own jurisdictions because of the science, among them the US, Norway, Brazil and the EU as well as CCAMLR and General Fisheries Council of the Mediterranean, of which Japan is a member. At the meeting the US announced President George W. Bush’s intention to establish the world’s largest marine protected area – over 84 million acres – to safeguard a remote, biologically rich string of islands and submerged islands, including seamounts, known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), the most intact tropical marine ecosystems under US jurisdiction. (4)

Notes: (1) View ‘Deep Sea Disaster’ (2) More about the IMAX film ‘Deep Sea’ (3) NGO statement UNICPOLOS June 2006 (pdf) (4) Environmentalists Praise Bush’s Action to Create the World’s Largest Marine Protected Area: North-western Hawaiian Islands Sanctuary, 15 June 2006, Joint press release from MCBI, Environmental Defense, KAHEA and `Ilio`ulaokalani Coalition.