DSCC Interventions at  the Annual Meeting of the North Pacific Fisheries Commission (22-24 March)

Date: March 24, 2023

Intervention 1 on the report of the Chair of the Scientific Committee:

The Scientific Committee (SC) recommendation to endorse the glass sponges (Hexactinellida) and Demosponge sponge classes as VME indicator taxa is welcome. This has been under discussion for quite a long time and good to see this finally moving forward for adoption by the Commission.

At the same time, the need to identify associated and dependent species – not only VME indicator taxa – and assessing significant adverse impacts (SAIs) on these species was given significant emphasis in the review by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in November. The review led to the adoption Sustainable Fisheries Resolution 77/118 by the UNGA in December 2022 containing several key recommendations to this effect in paragraphs 211-213 of the resolution.

These include identifying and overcoming barriers to the implementation of the General Assembly resolutions on deep-sea fisheries (64/72, 66/68 and 71/123) “especially with regard to baseline data and the spatial distribution and connectivity of vulnerable marine ecosystems, including their associated and dependent species” and “to ensure that the precautionary approach is applied, including in the utilization of impact assessments to inform management decisions and consideration of significant adverse impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems, including their associated and dependent species.”

The SC recommendation to endorse the proposal by Canada regarding identifying areas where VMEs are known or likely to occur is a positive step forward. Again, the represents important fruition of the workplan of the SC.

We support the initiatives to enhance the joint PISCES, NPFC collaboration – this is something we have supported for several years.

On the other hand, the recommendation to set high encounter threshold levels for corals and sponges and shrinking the distance that would apply under the move-on rule is disappointing. It is important to recognize that the emphasis in the UNGA resolutions, the NPFC convention text and the NPFC conservation and management measure (CMM) for bottom fisheries is to prevent SAIs in the first place rather than “manage” them by a move-on rule. In 2010, the joint NAFO/ICES Working Group on Deepwater Ecology (WGDEC) reviewed the encounter protocols and move-on rules adopted by NEAFC and NAFO and concluded that “Reactionary management strategies such as the ‘encounter clauses’ and ‘move‐on rules’ are of limited benefit to prevent significant adverse impacts because they still allow damage to occur which will gradually degrade ecosystems over time” (Joint ICES/NAFO Working Group on Deepwater Ecology. 2010)

Regarding the sponge threshold of 500kg, by way of background I worked on a deep-sea trawler for five years off the Pacific coast of North America. We often trawled over glass sponges – but for the most part only brought up small pieces or fragments of these sponges in the net. On deck they were easily broken and crushed by hand. It is extremely difficult to imagine that any vessel could bring up 500kg of glass sponges in a single tow – most of the sponges would likely be crushed or pulverized by contact with the gear and remain on the seabed. Even a bycatch of only 2, 5, 10 or 20 kg in trawl gear could well be an indication of severe damage to the species and the ecosystems they support on the seabed. How was this threshold arrived at?

Intervention 2 on the proposed amendments to the bottom fisheries regulation 

The debate on whether to allow a catch of up to 500kg for “glass sponges” in a single set of a net before a fishing vessel would have to move out of an area to prevent further damage to seamount ecosystems or to have no limit at all illustrates one of the many complications in trying to manage deep-sea bottom trawl fisheries on seamounts. Glass sponges, as their name suggests, are some of the most delicate and fragile of the deep-sea sponges on the planet.

I’d like to highlight this to make a broader point. Over the past 6 months, three major, global agreements have been adopted related to the protection, conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. The UNGA Sustainable Fisheries resolution 77/118 adopted in December 2022 once again highlighted the importance of protecting deep-sea biodiversity by protecting VMEs. The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework adopted by COP-15 of the Convention on Biodiversity calls on States to take urgent action to halt and reverse biodiversity loss (Section B. Purpose). The new high seas treaty adopted earlier this month in New York asserts the objective of the agreement is “to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction” (Article 2 of the 4 March 2023 advanced, unedited text of the Agreement).

In addition, the UN General Assembly has identified 2021-2030 as the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. Sustainable Development Goal 14, Target 2 commits states to strengthening the resilience of marine ecosystems and take action for their restoration. And protecting biodiversity in the marine environment is a key obligation under the UN Fish Stocks Agreement (Article 5(g)) and in the NPFC convention text (3(e)) as is the obligation to protect habitats of special concern.

We hope to see convergence with these political commitments and obligations. The Second UN World Ocean Assessment, adopted in 2021 concluded that “Fishing, especially bottom trawling, constitutes the greatest current threat to seamount ecosystems”. The Emperor Seamount Chain is recognized by many scientists as a unique area of biodiversity in the deep sea – a biodiversity hotspot as it were. We would urge NPFC Parties to the ‘close the loop’ on the commitments made through the UNGA resolutions – to deliver on these and other political commitments and legal obligations to conserve biodiversity through agreeing to close seamounts to bottom trawl fishing. In our view, this would constitute a significant and valuable contribution by the NPFC to the implementation of global agreements for the conservation of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

We also support Canada’s proposal on prohibiting directed fisheries for all shark species as well as prohibiting shark finning. The plight of sharks is increasingly becoming a matter of broad public concern. We would note that deep sea sharks are some of the most vulnerable vertebrate species in the ocean. We hope to see progress on this and the adoption of the proposal at the meeting this year.