Conservation Groups Call for Moratorium to Protect Seamounts from Deep Seabed Trawling

Press release - 1 December, 2003
At the opening of a major international conference today on deep sea fisheries, major conservation organizations including IUCN-The World Conservation Organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Greenpeace called for immediate protection of seamounts, cold water corals and other vulnerable deep sea habitats from damaging deep seabed trawling.

Concern for high seas biodiversity and the sustainability of deep sea fisheries has been growing in recent years as scientists and conservationists have begun to learn more about vulnerable deep sea environments. Recent scientific exploration of seamounts and cold water coral reefs indicate that they can be hotspots of marine biodiversity. As many as fifty percent of the species observed during recent seamount cruises have been new to science, representing unique species of which little is known. Deep-sea species such as corals and sponges typically are slow-growing and long-lived, which makes them particularly sensitive to disturbance. Fish inhabiting these deep sea ecosystems can live for up to 150 years and sometimes reach reproductive maturity at 30 years of age, characteristics making them especially vulnerable to overfishing. A WWF report released last week concluded that overfishing of deep sea Orange Roughy has led to severe stock declines all around the world, accompanied by dramatic impacts on deep sea ecosystems.

Seabed trawling is the primary threat to deep sea environments, due to the destructive nature of the technique. The nets completely destroy bottom habitats like cold water coral reefs - some of which are thousands of years old - in a single trawl. A preliminary study commissioned by IUCN, NRDC, WWF, and Conservation International has found that high seas bottom trawling is limited to a small number of vessels and countries and the amount and value of the catch is less than 1% of global marine capture fisheries production. Moreover, the assessment found that bottom trawling on the high seas is almost completely unregulated. Only a handful of international Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) have authority to regulate bottom fishing, and few if any have restricted the practice to protect sensitive ecosystems.

Earlier this year at both the Tenth Deep-Sea Biology Symposium in Coos Bay, Oregon in August, and the Second International Symposium on Deep Sea Corals in Erlangen, Germany in September, more than 100 scientists signed a Statement of Concern to the United Nations General Assembly regarding the risks to seamounts, cold-water corals and other vulnerable ecosystems of the deep sea. Among other recommendations, they urged the UN General Assembly to adopt an immediate moratorium on bottom trawl fishing on the high seas.

"Seamounts, deep sea corals and other deep ocean features represent a treasure trove of biodiversity that belongs to all nations," said Lisa Speer, Senior Policy Analyst with the New York based Natural Resources Defense Council. "International action to protect them from the devastating impacts of bottom trawling is urgently needed."

"Bottom trawling for orange roughy on seamounts around the world has decimated Orange Roughy populations," said Simon Cripps, director of WWF's Endangered Seas Programme. "If we don't take immediate measures to regulate and better manage the fisheries, Orange roughy will become commercially extinct."

"The fact that bottom trawl fisheries on the high seas are largely unregulated represents an important gap in the governance of the world's oceans, said Kristina Gjerde, high seas policy advisor to IUCN's Global Marine Programme." A moratorium on high seas bottom trawling to protect seamounts and other vulnerable habitats would provide time to develop an enforceable legal regime".

"It appears that high seas bottom trawl fishing constitutes at present only about 0.2 percent of global marine fisheries capture production, and approximately 0.5% of the estimated value of the global marine fish catch in 2001" said Matthew Gianni, independent consultant and author of the WWF, NRDC, IUCN and CI-commissioned report on High Seas Bottom Fisheries. "A moratorium on high seas bottom trawling would not have a widespread economic impact nor significantly affect fish supplies, prices or food security."

"The deep sea is rapidly being plundered," said, Carmen Gravatt. Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace in New Zealand. "The shift towards deep sea fish is only another attempt to temporarily escape the global depletion of fish stocks. The last unknown wilderness should not be sacrificed for short term economic profit."

Notes: opies of the report: "High Seas Bottom Fisheries and their Impact on the Biodiversity of Vulnerable Deep Sea Ecosystems: Preliminary Findings" by Matthew Gianni is available at www.iucn.org/marine/themes. Further information on the issue can be found at www.panda.org; www.nrdc.org; and www.greenpeace.org.Copies of the WWF Report, Managing Risk and Uncertainty in Deep Sea Fisheries: lessons from Orange Roughy can be downloaded at http://www.panda.org./downloads/marine/OrangeR0.pdf.

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