South Pacific fisheries - getting hot in Chile

Feature story - 27 April, 2007
When it comes to stopping the strip-mining of the sea, it's time for governments to walk the walk so deep-sea critters can swim the swim.

Activists dressed as deep-sea creatures protest against bottom trawling in Chile.

Commitments were made at the UN General Assembly in 2006 to protect the bio-diversity of the deep-sea from bottom trawling.  Next week in  Chile we'll see if the politicians can actually deliver what they promised.

Will the South Pacific fisheries agreement deliver protection for the high seas?

We certainly hope so. The governments of the South Pacific, plus those of countries wanting to take advantage of one of the last high seas fisheries frontiers, are meeting to form a new fisheries management organization.

Given the perilous state of global fish stocks, this agreement has special significance.  It can't be solely about dividing up the ocean wealth: it needs to protect the ocean's health.

Photo by Gavin Newman

Populations of top predators, a key indicator of an ecosystem's stability, are disappearing at a frightening rate, and 90 percent of the large fish that many of us love to eat, such as tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, halibut, skate, and flounder - have been fished out since large scale industrial fishing began in the 1950s.

The depletion of these top predator species can cause a shift in entire oceans ecosystems where commercially valuable fish are replaced by smaller, plankton-feeding fish. This century may even see bumper crops of jellyfish replacing the fish consumed by humans.

Photo by Gavin Newman

Politicians and officials agree that they need to do better to ensure not only the protection of the fish stocks but also the diverse marine ecosystem on which they depend.

Time for action

For three years Greenpeace has worked with the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition and its 60 member organizations to get a global moratorium on the destructive fishing practice of bottom trawling in the high seas. Rather than agreeing to the moratorium, in October 2006 all governments agreed to a United Nations General Assembly resolution.

It is clear from current scientific information that we don't know enough about deep-sea ecosystems to protect them.  It is estimated that between half a million and five million deep-sea species are as yet undiscovered.  We know more about Mars than we do our own deep-sea environment.

The only genuinely precautionary approach is to close areas where these vulnerable ecosystems are occur, or are likely to occur, until adequate scientific assessments have been carried out, and effective conservation and management measures implemented.

'Paragorgia' coral dredged from a deep sea net. Photo by Malcolm Pullman

For fisheries agreements under development - like the one in the South Pacific - the deadline to implement these measures to protect deep sea ecosystems is December 2007. Here and now is the time for these Governments to put in place the commitments they made in December 2006.

This meeting must not just be about countries carving up the pie, each making sure they get a big enough slice. The agreement must include measures that will ensure not only the sustainability of the fish stocks, but also protection of our deep sea marine environment.

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