58 Australian marine scientists have sent a letter to the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard urging him to “take advantage of an historic opportunity to secure significant protection for the world’s deep-ocean ecosystems on the high seas” by promoting the negotiation of a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling at this year’s United Nations General Assembly. (1) A week earlier, over 100 international marine scientists, conservationists and biodiversity experts attending the International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC1) sent a letter to Australian Ministers for the Environment and Fisheries, Senators Ian Campbell and Ian MacDonald, urging them to stop deep sea destruction by supporting a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. (2) The letter was also sent to Heads of State attending the Pacific Islands Forum and delegates to the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which met last week in Hobart.
Records of Lophelia pertusa from inshore UK waters go back to Victorian times when this deep sea coral was described in fishermen’s reports. In the 1900s a fine specimen reached Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum from a long-line fisherman operating in the Minch and the Sea of the Hebrides to the west of Scotland. In the late 1960s a dredger turned up dead coral east of Mingulay, and John Wilson saw Lophelia colonies on a seabed ridge during pioneering manned submersible dives in 1970. In 1999 David Long, of the British Geological Survey (BGS), and Murray Roberts, of the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) began to wonder whether there were still live Lophelia reefs in the Minch.
The latest discovery of underwater life in abundance – coral forests at 1000 metres deep – was released today in Vienna at a conference (1) of marine biologists, underlining recent calls to take a time-out on trawl fishing of the ocean bottom until scientists can accurately assess the real richness of deep sea life and its resources. Scientists outlined new research from the US Government National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Ocean Exploration 2002 and 2004 Gulf of Alaska Seamount Expeditions. Marine ecologists collected and described a new species of deep sea fan (2), or gorgonian, called a “bamboo coral” from a dozen mountains in the sea between Santa Barbara, California and Kodiak, Alaska, USA, suggesting the animal occurs on peaks throughout the Pacific Ocean.
In a recent press release, New Zealand’s Seafood Industry Council seeks to draw attention from the growing support for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling by downplaying and distorting the wealth of existing scientific evidence that demonstrates the destructive nature of high seas bottom trawling – including data from New Zealand’s own National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA). The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition welcomes the Seafood Industry Council’s acknowledgement that “there can be little doubt that trawling has an effect on the benthic environment”. (1)
It isn’t, on the face of it, a hard case to make. In fact, it would seem obvious: dragging bottom trawls, complete with giant steel doors and rollers, across the sea bed is bound to be immensely damaging to the deep sea habitat and the species that live there. As far back as 1376, fishermen from the Thames Estuary petitioned king Edward III of England to ban primitive trawl nets that they feared could cause “great damage of the common’s realm and the destruction of the fisheries.”
Greenpeace’s ship, the Rainbow Warrior has left Auckland for international waters around New Zealand to highlight the destructive impacts of bottom trawling. The tour follows up on an expedition last year in which Greenpeace documented New Zealand and Belize bottom trawlers operating in the Tasman Sea. Dave Walsh, web editor onboard the Rainbow Warrior again this year, gave the following account of the 2004 expedition that followed the activities of seven ships as they trawled seamounts for target species of orange roughy.
A report released by Marine Conservation Biology Institute (MCBI) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), suggests that deep sea life holds major promise for the treatment of human illnesses (1). But scientists are increasingly concerned that bottom trawling may be destroying medically beneficial species before they are even discovered.
Responding to the Spanish Fisheries Ministry’s position statement on a proposed UN General Assembly moratorium on high seas bottom trawling, the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) welcomed Spain’s recognition that bottom trawling is a destructive fishing practice which needs to be addressed, but rejected their proposal for doing so as a stalling tactic.
At Seafood 2005 in Brussels this week, the Spanish Fisheries Ministry unveiled its new position in response to the growing outrage around the world about the devastating impacts of bottom trawl fishing on the high seas.
New deep sea discoveries are being made all the time. Several new species of black corals have been discovered this year alone, including a new shrub-like black coral that shines like a pink and white Christmas tree. Yet their delicate structures can be removed with one pass of a bottom dragging net and may take decades to recover.