New Zealand’s bottom trawling isolation continues in the South Pacific

Date: September 29, 2022

By Karli Thomas, Deep Sea Conservation Coalition Aotearoa

New Zealand is the only country still bottom trawling in the South Pacific, and last season just a single vessel was trawling in international waters, catching 20 tonnes of orange roughy. Meanwhile, a prosecution got underway yesterday of a New Zealand vessel that destroyed deep sea coral in the South Pacific in 2020.  

New Zealand’s bottom trawling activities have been reported by the government in its annual report  submitted to the Scientific Committee of the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO), which is meeting this week.

New Zealand has become increasingly isolated in this destructive bottom trawl fishery – since 2019 it has been the only country still bottom trawling in the South Pacific. The New Zealand fleet targets much of its trawling on seamounts and features, including biodiversity hotspots like the Louisville Ridge and the Lord Howe Rise.

Last year New Zealand issued permits to six trawl vessels owned by three companies, all with recent convictions for illegal trawling in closed areas. However, New Zealand’s latest annual report, covering the 2021 fishing season, shows that only one of those vessels fished in the high seas, catching some 20 tonnes of orange roughy.

The damage to deep sea ecosystems, and New Zealand’s international reputation, far outweighs these 20 tonnes of fish. In every year since 2019, New Zealand has had to report to SPRFMO illegal fishing or ecosystem destruction by its vessels, or had to update on painfully slow prosecutions for New Zealand vessels not following the international rules.

This week, as the SPRFMO Scientific Committee meets in South Korea, the latest prosecution gets underway in Nelson District Court. This time it’s Westfleet, a Sealord joint venture fishing company. The case centres on an incident in which a Westfleet bottom trawler damaged or destroyed a deep-sea coral ecosystem in the international waters of the Tasman Sea in 2020.

New Zealand reported the incident to the Committee  last year, but although it admitted the destructive trawl likely led to the complete loss of the deep sea ecosystem that the net dragged through, it argued that vessels should be allowed into the area again to keep trawling. This is the opposite of the precautionary approach that New Zealand has committed to following, in our own waters and in the South Pacific.

The identity of the vessel and company responsible for this recent coral destruction only became public this week as the court case got underway – the government has kept these details under wraps for almost two years.

All three companies that were issued permits last year have recent convictions for illegal trawling: Sealord was convicted in 2020 after its ship Ocean Dawn trawled five times through a closed area, dragging up 1,300 kilograms of deep-sea bycatch along with the 40 tonne fish catch. 

Last year, Sanford was convicted for multiple illegal trawls over a two-year timespan in another closed area – but reassured shareholders that it had insurance that would cover its fines.

Talley’s has faced two prosecutions of its subsidiary Amaltal: the first for its ship Amaltal Mariner trawling in Hikurangi Marine Reserve off Kaikoura. However, only the skipper was punished: the company had its conviction and fines overturned at appeal due to loopholes in the Marine Reserves Act that don’t allow a company to be held responsible for illegal fishing by its vessels and crew. 

The second Talley’s case saw the company convicted earlier this year for illegal fishing by its ship Amaltal Apollo, which trawled multiple times in an area of international waters placed off-limits to trawling by SPRFMO. This happened in 2018; it took three years to complete the prosecution. The company was fined $59,000 and the skipper $12,000. 

This year, despite calls by environmental and fishing groups, the Green Party and other concerned kiwis, three permits were issued to New Zealand trawlers to fish in the South Pacific: Two Sealord vessels, and Talley’s Amaltal Mariner (the same ship that trawled in a marine reserve).

Some of the agenda items of the upcoming meeting this week make for sad reading. How much ancient and slow-growing deep-sea corals and sponges is it okay to drag up in a trawl net? If you drag up more than the allowed amount of bycatch, how far away do you have to move before you can continue trawling? These are discussions that simply wouldn’t be necessary if New Zealand vessels weren’t still out there bottom trawling.

The real question is: why are we still allowing bottom trawlers to go out and trawl on the seamounts and features that are hotspots of deep sea life? In the Southern Ocean, bottom trawling has been banned altogether. In the North Atlantic, seamounts and features have been closed to trawling.

Rather than stepping back and asking whether the damage is worth it for 20 tonnes of fish, New Zealand is trying to drag SPRFMO into a vicious cycle.  The industry is claiming that because the Commission exists there needs to be a trawl fishery for orange roughy, that the trawl fishery is needed to provide research data for the stock assessment – which is needed because there is a trawl fishery. This is clearly not the case with acoustic surveys which don’t rely on killing fish.

The cost of management alone for this destructive and failing fishery must be staggering. Add in the costs to the environment, and the picture gets even bleaker: NZ trawlers in the South Pacific have dragged up as much as five  tonnes of coral in a single trawl. And science is showing that the coral in the net is just a small fraction of what’s destroyed on the seabed. 

In the cold, hard light of day – we’re talking about a fish that can live well over 200 years, may take till it’s in its eighties to breed every year, congregates on seamounts and features that are also home to ancient corals, sponges and other vulnerable marine life, and is being caught using an unsustainable and fuel-intensive method of heavy nets dragged across the seabed. SPRFMO hasn’t even considered the carbon footprint of trawling. It’s clear we don’t have to keep doing this.  

New Zealand is the last country in the South Pacific that’s bottom trawling on the high seas. Similarly, in the North Pacific there are fewer than a handful of vessels trawling on the Emperor Seamounts. We are so close to having a shared Pacific Ocean where all seamount ecosystems are safe from bottom trawling – but New Zealand is one of the last remaining obstacles.

It’s time we became part of the solution, not part of the problem.

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