Date: February 10, 2008

– Rome.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) hosted a “Technical Consultation” at its headquarters in Rome this week to negotiate a set of International Guidelines for the management of deep-sea fisheries on the high seas.

The meeting, involving some 40 countries, was designed to assist Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) and countries engaged in deep-sea fishing on the high seas to implement the 2006 UN General Assembly resolution (resolution 61/105) calling for the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) such as deep-sea corals, seamounts, sponges, and hydrothermal vents from damage from high seas fishing operations.

The UN General Assembly (UN GA) resolution called on fishing nations and RFMOs to regulate bottom fisheries on the high seas to prevent “significant adverse impacts” to vulnerable marine ecosystems by December 2008 and to prohibit their vessels from continuing to fish unless or until they are able to do so. Among other things, the UN GA resolution also called on the UN FAO to help develop standards and criteria to assist nations in implementing the resolution.

The Consultation failed to complete a set of guidelines but instead agreed to hold a follow-up meeting scheduled for August 2008. In the event that the provisions of the UN Resolution are not met, high seas bottom fishing must stop at the end of 2008 until such time as they have been implemented.

“The DSCC is disappointed that the guidelines for deep-sea fisheries on the high seas were not finalized by governments involved in the negotiations at the UN FAO this week” said Matthew Gianni, who attended the meeting on the Seas at Risk delegation on behalf of the DSCC. “Nonetheless, the fact that the guidelines were not completed this week in no way should be used by high seas fishing nations to justify failure to meet the UN General Assembly deadline of December 2008”.

Some progress was made at the FAO with a number of useful provisions being agreed, including: the approach countries should take in determining which types of ecosystems are vulnerable to bottom fisheries on the high seas; where such ecosystems may be found or are likely to be found and how to conduct environmental impact assessments to determine what impact bottom fishing may have.

At the same time, however, countries rejected a draft proposal recommending that in situations where there is uncertainty over whether: sensitive deep-sea species and ecosystems are present in a particular area of interest to fishing vessels; or the impact of bottom fishing in the area would be significant; that high seas fishing nations should not allow fishing in the area until these issues are resolved. This is unfortunate given the scale of bottom fishing currently taking place on the high seas and how little is currently known about deep-sea eocosystems and the impacts of fisheries.

Instead there was tentative agreement to prohibit fishing in cases of “substantial uncertainty” with respect to the presence of VMEs or whether fishing would have significant adverse effects on such VMEs unless conservation and management measures are in place to prevent such impacts. This represents a step forward, in that the UN GA resolution was silent on the issue of what to do in cases of uncertainty. The language tentatively agreed would require countries to impose measures where there is such uncertainty.

Indeed, a ‘Statement of Concern’ to the United Nations Secretary-General signed by 140 scientists who participated in the 10th Deep-Sea Biology Symposium, a gathering of many of the world’s leading deep-sea biologists, succinctly summarized the concern of the scientific community:

  • “populations of numerous commercially important species of deep-sea fish and precious corals associated with seamounts, ridges, plateaus, continental slopes, coral reefs and sponge fields in the deep-sea have been serially depleted by fishing;
  • benthic habitats and communities have been severely damaged by fishing activities;
  • the biological characteristics of most deep-sea species render the deep sea particularly sensitive to anthropogenic disturbance and exploitation;
  • although knowledge of deep-sea biodiversity is limited, evidence to date suggests that deep water habitats such as coral, seamount, seep and vent ecosystems are likely to harbour distinct assemblages of diverse and highly endemic species.”

The negotiations this week were dominated by a dozen or so countries, of which the most active were the European Union, Norway, Iceland, Canada, United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Argentina and Palau. DSCC member organizations Seas at Risk and the Natural Resources Defense Council also participated in the negotiations as did IUCN and at least two organizations representing the deep-sea fishing industry.

“The clock is ticking, and the world is watching,” said Lisa Speer of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a member organization of the DSCC. “The international community is looking to see if fishing states can deliver on their commitments to ensure that deep sea fishing is managed in a way that prevents damage to vulnerable marine ecosystems like deep sea corals,” she said.

Over the next several months, a number of regional meetings will take place to negotiate or further negotiate regulations for high seas deep-water fisheries in the Northwest and Northeast Atlantic, the North Pacific and the South Pacific Oceans to implement the UN GA resolution.

The IUCN prepared a background paper for the FAO Technical Consultation which can be found in their website.