According to a study released on the opening day of a key U.N.
meeting, bottom trawlers are increasingly targeting commercially
valuable fish found near underwater mountains, or seamounts, cold
water corals and other vulnerable deep sea habitats in unprotected
areas of international waters. Scientists believe these largely
unexplored habitats are extremely rich in biodiversity and could be
home to the largest remaining pool of undiscovered marine
The push to suspend bottom trawling on the high seas comes as
the United Nations Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the
Law of the Sea (UNICPOLOS) gathers oceans, environmental and
fisheries officials from around the world for a series of meetings
in New York during the week of June 7-11. The Deep Sea Conservation
Coalition is calling on UNICPOLOS delegates to back a United
Nations General Assembly resolution that would prohibit high seas
bottom trawling until deep sea biodiversity conditions and the
sustainability of high seas bottom fishing have been scientifically
assessed and legally binding regimes have been established to
protect this biodiversity and ensure sustainable fisheries.
"Bottom trawling is eliminating entire ecosystems and species,
in some cases before we have even learned of their existence," said
Karen Sack, of Greenpeace International. "In the past fifty years,
we've already wiped out 90% of the top predatory fish species. We
are now flirting with a global catastrophe."
Bottom trawling plows up the ocean floor, destroying everything
in its path, including fragile corals, sponges and other deep-sea
habitats. Underwater surveys have shown that up to 95% of
deep-water coral reefs on seamounts can be destroyed by bottom
trawl fishing. Video images of impacted areas and new scientific
evidence on the age and slow growth rate of corals demonstrate that
ecosystems that are sometimes hundreds or thousands of years old
are usually damaged beyond repair.
"The deep seas are our planet's last frontier," said Matthew
Gianni, the study's author and a former fisherman turned fisheries
expert. "The least-explored habitats on Earth aren't the Andes or
the remote tropical rain forests of Asia - they're seamounts, deep
sea corals, hydrothermal vents and other deep ocean features that
are teeming with unique and important marine life. These areas must
be protected before they are lost."
The Gianni report emphasizes that a small group of countries are
destroying the biodiversity of the global oceans commons for
relatively insignificant economic gain. The report identifies
eleven countries - Spain, Russia, Portugal, Norway, Estonia,
Denmark/Faeroe Islands, Japan, Lithuania, Iceland, New Zealand and
Latvia - as taking 95% of the fish caught in bottom trawl fisheries
on the high seas in 2001. Of these, European Union countries
(including Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) took approximately 60%
of the catch. Spain alone accounted for 40% of the overall global
high seas bottom trawl catch in 2001.
"It's not right that a single method of fishing being practiced
by only a handful of nations could cause the extinction of species
unknown to science and destroy any potential for sustainable
fisheries," said Arlo Hemphill of Conservation International. "That
is why it is incumbent on the United Nations to declare an
immediate suspension of bottom trawling on the high seas."
The Gianni report also highlights that deep-sea marine life,
though largely unexplored, has already been shown to be an
important source of medicine. Some deep-sea corals produce
antibiotics, and others contain pain-killing compounds. Still
another deep-sea species contains high concentrations of
prostaglandins, compounds used to treat asthma and heart
Momentum in favour of protecting places in the high seas has
been gaining in recent years.
In 2002 and 2003 UNICPOLOS and the United Nations General
Assembly issued statements calling for urgent improvements in
managing risks to the biodiversity of seamounts. In February 2004,
the Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological
Diversity called on the United Nations and other international
bodies to take rapid action, such as an interim prohibition on
destructive practices adversely affecting seamount biodiversity.
That same month, 1,136 marine scientists from 69 countries signed a
letter supporting swift action to protect imperilled deep sea coral
and sponge ecosystems. These scientists identified bottom trawling
as a particular threat and called upon the United Nations General
Assembly to declare a moratorium on bottom trawling on the high
Dr. Daniel Pauly, Director of the Fisheries Centre at the
University of British Columbia co-edited a new report, "Seamounts:
Biodiversity and Fisheries," which also was released at the U.N.
meeting. The report found that undersea mountains support some of
the planet's richest biodiversity and are especially vulnerable to
VVPR info: Additional Coalition member quotes:"The only way to ensure the long term survival of the fishing industry is to prevent the further collapse of fish stocks," said Kristina Gjerde of IUCN. "The history of bottom trawl fishing on the high seas has been one of boom and bust. Without effective and legally binding regulations, further fish stocks will be reduced to commercial extinction, a result not in the interest of responsible fishers or the global community."Scientists must have time to learn the distribution, value and vulnerability of seamount ecosystems before it is too late," said Dr. Daniel Pauly, Director of the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia in Canada. "We are calling for a 'time out' on bottom trawling to allow the natural resources of the high seas to be inventoried and a regime to manage and protect them to be developed," said Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst with NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council)."Seamounts are undersea oases in the black depths," said Dr. Elliott Norse, President of Marine Conservation Biology Institute. "Scientists believe there are tens of thousands of them, but have begun to explore only a few hundred of them. Many are home to bizarre and beautiful deep-sea corals, sponges and many other species not well understood by science. We know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the world's seamounts.""At this rate, the fish will be all gone by the time methods have been developed that allow all countries - rich and poor alike - to fish these waters sustainably," said Simon Cripps, Director of WWF's Endangered Seas Programme."It's bad enough we're using scarce resources to study Mars and not the oceans. Unfortunately, we're also doing our best to make the bottom of the ocean look like Mars," said Dr. Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist of Oceana. "Species that may benefit all humankind are being destroyed. What if the cure for leukaemia or AIDS is sitting on a seamount? A small group of fleets cannot be allowed to destroy resources that belong to us all before we even know what we're losing."
Notes: (1) The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition includes Conservation International, Greenpeace International, IUCN (World Conservation Union), Marine Conservation Biology Institute, Natural Resources Defense Council, New England Aquarium, Oceana, Pew Charitable Trusts, WWF International, together with numerous national environmental organizations throughout the world.