Spanish Institute for Oceanography Releases Results of Research into Vulnerable Deep-sea Ecosystems in the Southwest Atlantic

Date: April 4, 2011

The Spanish Ministry of the Environment and Rural and Marine Affairs (MARM) hosted an event on 4 April in Madrid. Scientists presented the results of the several years of research by the Instituto Español de Oceanografía (IEO) to identify vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) on the high seas of the Atlantic Ocean. The meeting was opened by Minister Rosa Aguilar. MARM is the Ministry within which the General Secretariat of the Sea (Secretaria General del Mar), which is responsible for fisheries, is housed.

One of the areas where the IEO conducted research was along the Patagonian shelf and slope in the Southwest Atlantic between 42—48 degrees south latitude. This is an area of the high seas where a fleet of ~20 Spanish trawlers fish, primarily for hake and squid.

The IEO research has been conducted in response to UN General Assembly resolution 61/105 and a European Union (EU) regulation (EC 734/2008) adopted in July 2008. The latter requires Spain and other EU Member States bottom fishing in areas of the high seas where no regional fisheries management organization (RFMO) nor interim measures exist to identify VMEs at risk from bottom fishing and to close these areas to fishing.

At the Madrid event the IEO proposed that 9 large areas along the Patagonian Shelf and slope be designated as VMEs and closed to bottom trawling. Seven of the areas cover most of the slope between 300 and 1000 metres (the maximum depth of the research) while the remaining two cover areas along the shelf at depths shallower than 300 metres.

In a report published in November 2010 the European Commission determined that Spain had not complied with the EU regulation, adopted by Council in 2008, to implement the UN General Assembly resolutions with respect to EU bottom fisheries in the Southwest Atlantic.

A number of NGOs attended the meeting, including Greenpeace Spain, WWF Spain, Ecologistas en Accion, Seas at Risk and the DSCC. One of the key points made by NGOs in various interventions is that the Spanish government should have implemented area closures on a precautionary basis several years ago, in response to the 2006 UN General Assembly resolution and the 2008 EC regulation. Now that there is clear scientific evidence for the presence of VMEs in the region and a proposal from the IEO to close VME areas, the Spanish government has no reason not to act.

If Spain fails to act on the information provided by the IEO, the credibility of both the Spanish flag and Spain as a flag State is at risk. During the UNGA negotiations in 2006, a number of countries involved (in particular Norway and the US) took the position that there should be no bottom fishing on the high seas in areas where an RFMO is non—existant or is under negotiation. Their reasoning at the time was that there would be no way to establish multilaterally agreed regulations to implement the UN General Assembly resolution. However, the EU argued that in the Southwest Atlantic, the EU had substantial fishing interests but that no RFMO would be established anytime soon because of the dispute between the UK and Argentina over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands. The EU ultimately prevailed. As a result, UNGA resolution 61/105 agreed to make an exception for such areas. This exception was contingent on the flag State implementing the measures in the resolution to manage bottom fisheries and making the information on what has been done publicly available so that other States can verify compliance.

The European Commission (DG MARE) also made a presentation at the Madrid meeting. Their focus was on the 2008 Council regulation (734/2008). The Commission representative stated that they intend to revise the regulation once the 2011 UN General Assembly negotiations have concluded. The main proposal — as outlined in the November DG MARE review of the regulation — is that it be expanded to cover all high seas bottom fisheries by EU vessels. This would include RFMO areas, even where the RFMO has not adopted sufficiently stringent regulations for managing deep—sea fisheries. The 2008 EU regulation incorporates all of the key elements of resolution 61/105 though it does need to be updated in light of resolution 64/72 and the FAO Guidelines.

A report on high seas bottom fishing published by the UN FAO in 2009 indicated that Spain and the Republic of Korea were the two main countries engaged in bottom fishing on the high seas of the Southwest Atlantic. The government of South Korea has indicated that it has adopted regulations to manage the bottom fisheries by Korean flagged vessel in the region. However, the contents of the regulation, and actions taken by South Korea to implement the UNGA resolutions for the management of the fisheries in the region, have not been made publicly available as far as the DSCC is aware.

The IEO’s research has covered other high seas areas in the Atlantic as well — specifically the Northeast, Northwest and Southeast Atlantic — areas where the Spanish deep—sea trawl fleet also operates. Spain is one of the few countries that have responded to the call by the UN General Assembly to conduct surveys to identify areas of the high seas where vulnerable marine ecosystems are known or likely to occur.