Why We Must Act Now To Protect The Deep Sea From Destructive Bottom Trawling

Date: August 1, 2016

Source: Virgin Unite
Author: Susanna Fuller

I’m planning a trip to St. John’s, Newfoundland this week and while I’ve been there several times, this visit seems more important than others. It was in that city, a little over a decade ago, that I attended a meeting with a number of scientists and began to get substantively involved in efforts to protect areas of the high seas from the impacts of bottom trawling.

Bottom trawling is an industrial scale fishing method, which uses huge nets with heavy chains, metal ‘doors’ to keep the net open, and rollers that scour the seafloor, destroying everything in their path. It has been compared to clear cutting a forest to catch a few squirrels.

Newfoundland is the beautiful, iconic, windswept rock in eastern Canada with adjacent waters once home to some of the most abundant fish stocks in the world. Through decades of overfishing, which started in earnest following World War II when factory trawlers pushed aside smaller fishing vessels and the sailing fleets, Canada and other countries managed to decimate not only the cod stocks, but much of the fragile ocean floor through destructive fishing practices.

Cold water corals brought up from the seafloor in the Northwest Atlantic. Image from: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada

The establishment of the 200-mile limit in 1979 meant that foreign vessels could no longer fish within these waters, and were relegated to areas outside national boundaries – an area classified as the high seas and subject to international law. International law is governed by treaties between States. Tracking adherence to international law is difficult at the best of times, let alone on the high seas which is out of sight and mind for most of the world. Getting international laws in place to govern these international waters takes a very long time and is a huge challenge.

“A new report by the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition makes it clear that while there are areas that are now protected from bottom trawling, there is much still to be done.”

Scientists have been studying the impacts of bottom trawling on seafloor creatures including cold-water corals, sponges and seamount ecosystems since the late 1980’s, and raising the alarm over its impacts. Political action to address the impacts of bottom trawling on high seas marine life only began at the United Nations in 2002. By 2004, calls for a complete halt to high seas bottom trawling were coming from countries, civil society and over 1000 scientists around the world.

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