Conservationists urge full implementation of new EU regulation on deep-sea fishing formally adopted today

Date: December 13, 2016

The European Parliament today concluded a long process of negotiation by voting to adopt a new regulation on deep-sea fishing, including a ban on bottom trawling below 800 meters in EU waters, and an obligation to close deep-sea areas to bottom fishing to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs). The Parliament vote to approve the regulation paves the way for its entry into force early in the new year. The priority now is to ensure vigorous and effective implementation.

The deep ocean is one of the most biologically diverse areas of the planet and the EU has one of the largest deep-sea fishing fleets in the world. EU fishing fleets have moved into deeper waters in the northeast Atlantic as coastal and continental shelf fisheries became fully or over-exploited. Bottom trawling, the most common method of bottom fishing in the deep sea, consists of dragging huge, weighted and unselective fishing nets along the seafloor depleting slow growing, long-lived species of fish, and is the greatest threat to deep-water coral, sponge, and other vulnerable habitats that have flourished for thousands of years. This results in a major loss of biodiversity and compromises the capacity of deep-sea ecosystems to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Today’s vote is the culmination of a process dating back many years. In the early 2000s, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) began debating a series of landmark resolutions calling on States to take urgent action to protect deep-sea ecosystems from the harmful impacts of bottom fishing, in particular dee-sea bottom trawling. A 2007 review by the European Commission concluded that the EU had failed to maintain most deep-sea fisheries within safe biological limits or to protect vulnerable deep-sea marine ecosystems from highly destructive fishing.

In July 2012, the Commission finally proposed a new regulation for the management of the EU’s deep-sea fisheries in the northeast Atlantic. The process to agree the proposal with the European Parliament and Council of the EU’s 28 fisheries ministers started slowly and was beset with delays.

In December 2013, the European Parliament voted to add many positive provisions for protecting vulnerable ecosystems but rejected any phase-out or depth limit for deep-sea bottom trawling. With the ball back in the court of the Council, delays continued until, after intensive campaigning, ministers adopted a position in November 2015 with a ban of bottom trawling below 800 metres, a compromise between those rejecting any limit and scientific evidence supporting a shallower 600m limit. A political agreement along these lines was finally reached by negotiators from Council and Parliament at the end of June 2016, subsequently endorsed by the Council Ministers, and today approved by the vote of the Parliament.

The measures adopted in the new regulation represent a considerable improvement to the previous regime, and go a good way towards meeting the commitments made by the EU at the UNGA:

  • A prohibition of bottom trawling below 800 meters;
  • A rigorous process for identifying and closing areas to bottom fishing below 400 metres where VMEs are known or likely to occur;
  • A freeze of the deep-sea bottom-fishing footprint for vessels targeting deep-sea species, and a requirement to carry-out an impact assessment prior to deep-sea bottom fishing by such vessels outside of the footprint;
  • Observer coverage on at least 20% of vessels using bottom trawls or bottom set gillnets to target deep-sea species, and on at least 10% of all other vessels authorised to catch deep-sea species.

The regulation applies to all fishing in EU waters of the northeast Atlantic, approximately 932,000 square kilometers of which lie below 800 meters – an area larger than the size of Spain and Germany combined. Approximately 143,000 square kilometres of this area consisting of the continental slope and adjacent seamounts, are between 800 and 1,500 metres deep, the maximum depth that bottom trawling generally occurs in this region. These areas, with a high diversity of fish species and rich in deep-water bottom habitat forming species, will now be protected from bottom trawling. In the international waters of the central east Atlantic off west Africa, EU vessels will be prohibited from bottom trawling on approximately 70 of the 100 seamounts whose peaks are shallower than 1,500 meters deep.

Effective implementation will be critical when the regulation comes into force early in the new year. The European Commission, in consultation with member states, and on the basis of robust scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), should ensure:

  • The bottom fisheries footprint and 800 metre depth prohibition line are strictly defined;
  • The procedures for identifying areas where VMEs are known or likely to occur are based on the best scientific information possible, that ICES make clear recommendations for area closures on the basis of the precautionary approach, and that bottom fisheries closures are effectively and expeditiously adopted;
  • Any impact assessments for fishing in new areas must be properly conducted and reviewed and deep-sea bottom fishing must not be permitted in new fishing areas unless the assessment clearly demonstrates that damage to deep-sea ecosystems will not occur;
  • Appropriate mechanisms are in place for monitoring, control and surveillance to ensure compliance with the deep-sea trawl ban and the area closures to protect VMEs; and annual reports from member states are requested and submitted.

To complement the new regulation, the EU should continue working with other countries to enhance the protection of deep-sea ecosystems in international waters where the Spanish and other deep-sea trawl fleets fish.

The EU should also ensure catch limits to ensure sustainable fishing: Deep-sea species are generally slow-growing, late-maturing and have a low reproductive rate, which makes them particularly vulnerable to overfishing. However, with the adoption of the reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), ministers insisted that specific measures on fishing limits and bycatch prevention were not necessary in the new deep sea regulation.

Every two years the Council sets the total allowable catch (TAC) for deep-sea species for EU fleets and last month, adopted catch limits for deep-sea species for 2017 and 2018. We had high hopes that the ministers would complement their agreement for the protection of deep-sea habitats with sustainable fishing limits for deep-sea species in line with the CFP and commitments made at the UNGA. However, while TACs for many deep-sea stocks were reduced, most remain above the levels recommended by the scientific community. Ministers also allowed continued fishing of roundnose grenadier, which has been classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and introduced TACs for deep-sea sharks caught as bycatch, several of which are listed as endangered or critically endangered, reversing the zero quotas for deep-sea sharks that have been in place for the past several years.