New protections for fragile deep-sea ecosystems agreed by Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation

Date: September 24, 2021


For immediate release 24.9.21

Seamounts and other deep-sea ecosystems on the high seas get further protection from bottom trawling in the Northwest Atlantic 

The 43rd Annual Meeting of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) ended today, with new protections for deep-sea ecosystems on the high seas. NAFO agreed to close many more seamounts – underwater mountains recognized as biodiversity hotspots – to deep-sea trawling based on a proposal from the United States and Canada. Altogether all seamounts and other features less than 4000 meters depth are now fully protected from any future bottom fishing. The seamount closures cover an area of approximately 100,000 square kilometers.  

In addition, a number of deepwater ecosystems formed by corals, sponges, seapens, and other habitat-forming species along the Grand Banks and Flemish Cap beyond Canada’s national waters off Newfoundland were also closed to bottom fishing. The NAFO Scientific Council had recommended a greater percentage of such areas as well as other types of deep-sea ecosystems dominated by bryozoans and sea squirts also be closed but these closures were not adopted. 

This year, NAFO scientists completed a five-year review of all existing information on where so-called vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems (VMEs) are located and recommended new closures to provide additional protection in areas at risk from bottom fishing. NAFO first began closing VME areas to bottom fishing as a result of commitments made by its member countries at the United Nations General Assembly beginning in 2004. 

“Most countries have recognized the need to prevent overfishing, enhance the resilience of ocean ecosystems from the impacts of global heating, and halt and reverse biodiversity loss including in the seas,” said Matthew Gianni, representing the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition at the NAFO meeting.

“The actions taken by NAFO this week are important progress in this direction but more still needs to be done, especially in light of the scientific advice presented to the meeting.”

Matthew Gianni, Deep Sea Conservation Coalition

NAFO scientists completed a five-year review in 2021 of all existing information on where VMEs are located. The NAFO Scientific Council put forward 13 proposals to expand existing fishery closures and create new area closures to protect VMEs. Five of these proposals were adopted by NAFO for five a year period, four more will take effect for a two-year period only and then be reviewed, and four of the closure proposals were rejected leaving the ecosystems in these areas unprotected. 

“We know that our oceans are under increasing threats, from new and ongoing activities – fishing, oil and gas development, and mining. Closing the seamounts and fragile coral and sponge areas in the Northwest Atlantic to fishing is an important step in their protection from human activities,” says Susanna Fuller, with Oceans North, a Canadian marine conservation organization also attending the meeting. 

While progress was made on protecting deep-sea areas under NAFO’s jurisdiction, six stocks remain under moratorium or no directed fisheries authorized because of overfishing. Cod on the Flemish Cap (3M) having declined to low levels because of overfishing since reopening in 1999. Nonetheless, some countries have successfully pushed NAFO to adopt quotas as high as possible for 2022 within scientific advice now that the fishery has been reopened. NAFO has yet to agree on a quota-based process for Flemish Cap (3M) shrimp, which remains under an Olympic fishery and is closed for the next two years. NAFO has been making slow steps to adopt an ecosystem approach to management, but this has yet to influence how chronic overfishing and excessive quotas can be prevented.  

In 2022, the United Nations General Assembly will review the actions taken by NAFO countries and others involved in regulating high seas fisheries globally on what progress has been made in protecting deep-sea ecosystems from bottom fishing. 


More information

Expert interviews are available with:

  • Matthew Gianni – DSCC Co-founder and Policy Adviser 
  • Susanna Fuller- Oceans North Vice President, Operations and Projects 

About the DSCC

The DSCC is made up of some 100 non-government organizations, fishers organizations, and law and policy institutes working together to protect vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems. We aim to substantially reduce the greatest threats to life in the deep sea and to safeguard the long-term health, integrity, and resilience of deep-sea ecosystems.

Our main focus is on ensuring the sustainability of deep-sea fisheries and addressing the potential threat of deep-sea mining.

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