Ninety per cent of the world’s oceans are unexplored and only a tiny 0.0001% of the biology of the deep seafloor has been investigated, but the limited studies to date of these cold, deep, dark places find many wonderful surprises. Amazing new species, colourful luminescent life, cold water coral reefs 8,500 years old – 35m high, 40km long and 3km wide. Fantastical and beautiful.
Yet the mostly undiscovered worlds of the deep sea are already being destroyed by bottom trawling. The most destructive type of fishing in the world, bottom trawling involves dragging huge nets armed with steel plates and heavy rollers across the seabed. The nets crush everything in their path, including ancient coral, and sweep up hundreds of bottom dwelling creatures along with the target fish species like orange roughy. The process is like clear-felling a forest. Bottom trawling vessels are highly technological and operate at an industrial scale. Much bottom trawling takes place around seamounts – underwater mountains that rise 1,000 metres or higher from the seabed that are home to cold-water coral reefs and forests, sponge beds and hydrothermal vents.
Enormous quantities of plankton accumulate around seamounts, which in turn, attract a vast array of marine life. As feeding and spawning grounds for large marine mammals, including dolphins and whales, an extraordinary diversity of fish species and the birds that prey on them, exotic sponge ecosystems and microscopic bacteria, seamounts are among the world’s greatest marine biological treasures. The fragile deep-water ecosystems of seamounts and their coral systems are easily bulldozed by the heavy plates of bottom trawlers. In a few weeks bottom trawl fishing can reduce thousand year old ecosystems to rubble.
The possibility of re-generation is uncertain. In short, bottom trawling is destroying our deep sea ecosystems, in many cases even before these wonderful deep sea worlds and their amazing deep sea creatures are discovered. But the story need not be so bleak. In February 2004 over a thousand marine scientists from 69 countries, including Australia, signed a statement asking the United Nations (UN) to halt bottom trawling in international waters. Shortly afterwards the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) was established to aid the call for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. The DSCC wants to stop the current damage to allow time for scientists to assess and identify vulnerable areas of the deep ocean, and for the international community to implement governance measures for the sustainable management of the high seas. The DSCC is now an international alliance of over 50 primarily international organizations.
In November 2004 the UN recognized the problem and called on countries to “take action urgently to address the impact of destructive fishing practices, including bottom-trawling that has adverse impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems, including seamounts, hydrothermal vents and cold water corals located beyond national jurisdiction.” It agreed to review the situation in 2006. Unfortunately the recently released UN Review of ‘urgent actions’ taken by nation states to address the impacts of bottom trawling found that “many fisheries are not managed until they are overexploited and clearly depleted and, because of the high vulnerability of deep-sea species to exploitation and their low potential for recovery, this is of particular concern for these stocks. This raises the question of the urgent need for interim measures in particular circumstances, pending the adoption of conservation and management regimes”.
The United Nations have a chance to remedy this appalling situation – by agreeing a global ban on highly destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling in all high seas areas at their next meeting in November this year. So what will Australia do at the United Nations in November 2006. Thus far Australia has not supported the growing number of countries recognising the need and in favor of a moratorium. The Minister for Fisheries, Senator Abetz tries to reassure us that it’s all under control, because New Zealand, Australia and Chile are working to set up a regional fisheries management agreement for the high seas in the South Pacific. He neglects to mention that Australia and New Zealand have been talking about this for 15 years and formal talks only started this year. It will take years to conclude and certainly can’t be described as ‘taking urgent action’. Meanwhile the destruction continues. The Government is yet to agree on a position. Environment Minister Senator Campbell acknowledges the destructive impacts of bottom trawling. And despite Australian science supporting this, government officials in the Department of Fisheries continue to argue that bottom trawling can be done ‘sustainably’. The facts seem to fly in the face of this claim. A 2003 Australian study of bottom trawling on seamounts on the high seas just outside of Australian waters – South Tasman rise – found that for each tonne of orange roughy an additional 2.5 tonnes of coral were also captured on board the bottom trawl vessels.
Likewise, another study in Australian waters found that unfished seamounts had extensive coral cover whereas on the heavily fished seamounts “data suggest that virtually all coral aggregate, living or dead, was removed by the fishery, leaving behind bare rock and pulverized coral rubble”. Australia has nothing to lose and a lot to gain by supporting a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling – global cooperation to enforce a ban on destructive fishing practices will also make it easier to fight illegal fishing and will ensure fish are still around for the Australian fishing industry when sustainable methods are developed. The deep seas deserve a sustainable future. The only effective way to protect deep sea life is a temporary ban on bottom trawling on the high seas while research is carried out and governance arrangements are put in place. Let’s hope there is agreement at United Nations in November 2006 with Australian government support. Its time to protect the Kakadu’s of the deep sea. Lyn Goldsworthy AM is the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition Australia-Pacific Coordinator. She has over twenty years experience in international environmental policy and advocacy, with particular emphasis on the Antarctica and global oceans.