NAFO, European Union – One Step Forward, One Step Back for Biodiversity Conservation in the Northwest Atlantic

Date: September 25, 2009

Bergen, Norway

The Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) this week agreed to prohibit high seas bottom fishing, including bottom trawling, in some 2,500 square miles of areas identified by Canadian scientists as containing significant concentrations of corals and sponges. But NAFO failed to agree to implement environmental impact assessments as required by a 2006 United Nations General Assembly resolution to protect deep-sea biodiversity such as cold-water corals, seamounts and sponge ecosystems.

The area closures are only likely to effect less than 1% (0.76%) of current high seas bottom fishing. It also is clear from the work of the NAFO Science Council that sponges, corals and other vulnerable seabed species occur in many areas in the Northwest Atlantic in addition to those closed this week. “We welcome the agreement reached by NAFO this week but, to effectively protect deep-sea ecosystems such as corals and sponges, bottom fishery impact assessments must be carried out” said Matthew Gianni, Political and Policy Advisor of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, who attended the meeting as an observer. “The assessments are crucial to determine whether additional areas need to be closed.” said Gianni.

The United States proposed establishing criteria for conducting impact assessments but Canada and the European Union, with support from others, argued that they needed more time. The UN General Assembly, in 2006, called on States to prohibit high seas bottom fishing by 31 December 2008 unless or until such assessments were conducted. NAFO has not yet begun to address the need to set aside areas as off limits to bottom fishing to allow for some degree of recovery or regeneration of coral, sponge and other seabed ecosystems that have been degraded by decades of bottom trawl fishing on the high seas of the Northwest Atlantic. The vast majority of high seas areas along the Grand Banks and Flemish Cap in the Northwest Atlantic where fishing has previously occurred remain open to continued bottom fishing.

NAFO rejected a science based proposal from the United States to require fishing vessels to move-out of areas still open to bottom fishing if they bring up more than 2kg of particularly vulnerable coral species or 75kg of sponges in the nets. Rather, NAFO allows vessels to carry on fishing even if they catch up to 60kg of ‘live’ corals and 800kg of ‘live’ sponges in a single tow. These ‘bycatch’ levels have been recognized by many marine biologists as likely to provide little protection to deep-sea ecosystems. In spite of the fact that much more work needs to be done to ensure that bottom fisheries in the NAFO area are in compliance with the 2006 UN General Assembly resolution, NAFO agreed this week to submit a report to the UN General Assembly declaring that the risk of adverse impacts to vulnerable marine ecosystems from bottom fishing in the NAFO area will be “negligible” as a result of the measures adopted by NAFO to date. “While some areas have been protected, there is no scientific basis for making such a sweeping statement about the whole of the NAFO area since no impact assessments been done to corroborate such a declaration” said Gianni. European Union fleets are responsible for the majority of the bottom fishing activity in the NAFO area according to a UN FAO report released earlier this year.

The EU has previously declared, including through statements from Commissioner Joe Borg, that the requirement to conduct environmental impact assessments of high seas bottom fisheries is the cornerstone of the 2006 UN General Assembly resolution, and that no high seas bottom fishing should be permitted unless it can be demonstrated that significant harm to vulnerable marine ecosystems would not occur – the reverse burden of proof. “The commitments and stated positions of the European Union in regard to protecting biodiversity on the high seas from the adverse impacts of bottom fishing increasingly ring hollow” said Gianni. “Implementation of the UN General Assembly resolution is a test case of the EU’s commitment to high seas biodiversity conservation, sustainable fisheries and taking an ecosystem approach to fisheries management. Unfortunately it appears that the EU is coming close to failing the test in the Northwest Atlantic.” For further information contact: Matthew Gianni: +31 646 16 88 99 Notes: UN General Assembly resolution 61/105, adopted in December 2006, calls on States and regional fishery management organizations such as NAFO to implement the following measures by 31 December 2008 or else not authorize (prohibit) high seas bottom fishing (Paragraph 83 of resolution 61/105):

  • Conduct impact assessments of individual high seas bottom fisheries to ensure that “significant” adverse impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) would be prevented or else not authorize bottom fishing to proceed;
  • Close areas of the high seas where VMEs are known or likely to occur to bottom fishing unless bottom fisheries can be managed in these areas to prevent significant adverse impacts on VMEs;
  • Ensure the long-term sustainability of deep-sea fish stocks;
  • Require fishing vessels to move out of an area of the high seas where ‘unexpected’ encounters with VMEs occur.