Over the past weekend, Greenpeace activists in New Zealand locked down a high seas bottom trawler stopping it leaving the New Zealand port of Nelson. [Watch the TV footage here] Two activists climbed the mast and made themselves inaccessible and another attached herself to the mooring lines while another team of activists locked metal braces and a large sculpture of a deep-sea coral to the vessel's stern with a banner reading "The Trawl's in your Court NZ" - A clear challenge to the New Zealand Government.

The trawler was the notorious Chang Xing - one of the high seas bottom trawlers that we happen know a lot about. We know that she has been operating in several oceans, and we know that she destroys deep-sea life wherever she goes. In June 2004, the Rainbow Warrior headed into the international waters of the Tasman Sea to document the activities of high seas bottom trawlers fishing for slimehead (or, as it has been renamed to sound more appealing for marketing purposes: Orange Roughy). And you guessed it - there it was - the Chang Xing busily scouring the seafloor with huge weighted nets hauling up everything and anything unlucky enough to be in their way.

By-killIn the Chang Xing's wake, the Rainbow Warrior's crew picked up all manner of weird and wonderful deep-sea creatures including a delicate branch of endangered black coral that is protected under CITES (Convention on Trade in Endangered Species). All were thrown over the side as unwanted 'by-catch".

Meanwhile, back on land, we did a bit of extra research to determine the history and ownership of the Chang Xing.

The Chang Xing flies the flag of Belize, but is owned by a Chinese company with connections to New Zealand and Fijian companies. Belize does not regulate the activities of its high seas vessels and is one of the four main 'flag of convenience' countries.

Belize (a small Caribbean nation) does not regulate the activities of its high seas vessels. It is one country counted in the top four 'flag-of-convenience' countries in a 2005 report funded by the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. In terms that Greenpeace uses, what the Chang Xing does, is pirate fishing.

When the Rainbow Warrior observed the Chang Xing fishing, she was bottom trawling for orange roughy oin the NW Challenger Plateau in the Tasman Sea - within 20 miles of six licensed, New Zealand- flagged bottom trawlers.

In September 2005, the New Zealand government announced that they

"would be prepared to support in principle, the concept of an interim global moratorium on bottom trawling on the high seas if such a proposal had sufficient support to be a practical and enforceable option for improving biodiversity protection on the high seas."

That's a very long-winded way of saying that they would support a moratorium if all other countries do too. Since then, we've heard a whole lot of reasons why New Zealand won't support a moratorium. One of the most important has been that it is only vessels flagged to 'responsible' states (like New Zealand and Australia) that are bottom trawling on the high seas and so it is not a big problem - because they regulate their vessels.

The Chang Xing shows that is not the case. The presence of New Zealand flagged bottom trawlers fishing nearby underlines the fact that so-called 'responsible' vessels do the same terrible damage to a sensitive and vulnerable deep-sea ecosystem. These bottom trawlers all use the same fishing gear. Nets weighing tens of tons that are dragged over the delicate and ancient eco-systems destroying all in their path before scientists even get a chance to see what is down there.

Giant coralIn June 2005, the Rainbow Warrior went back to the Tasman Sea and recorded the New Zealand flagged bottom trawler Waipori fishing for Orange Roughy. The Rainbow Warrior crew recorded the Waipori hauling a huge 400 year old Gorgonian coral in its nets. It took 2 men to throw the huge piece over the side, dead. New Zealand is certainly responsible for the damage caused by its vessel and is now also responsible for supplying a known flag- of- convenience vessel. But because there are no rules in place for most of the international waters of the high seas when it comes to bottom trawling, New Zealand can say that they have done nothing wrong. Doing nothing can sometimes have huge consequences.

On July 30, 2006 a New Zealand TV3 report quotes a spokesperson for the New Zealand Fisheries Minister as saying that

"while the government supported a worldwide moratorium it doubted it would happen because of a lack of political will from other countries."

What is New Zealand waiting for? It is a country known for its sheep but not for acting like one.

Deep Sea DestroyerWhen it came to the issue of defending the Pacific from nuclear testing, New Zealand didn't say there was a lack of political will and sit back and watch. New Zealand led the way to a nuclear- free Pacific. Back in 1989/90, New Zealand led the successful political push for a global moratorium on high seas 'walls of death' driftnet fishing, without hesitation or wavering over whether Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and other driftnet fishing countries would go along with it. And earlier this year, New Zealand didn't argue there was a lack of political will when it came to the issue of defending the whales on the high seas from countries like Japan and Iceland.

On the high seas bottom trawling issue, there are already a number of countries leading the way and they come from all corners of the world: Brazil in Latin America, Sweden and the United Kingdom in Europe, and Palau and Tuvalu in the Pacific. Isn't it time that New Zealand found its mettle once again and stepped out in front like they so often do, instead of hiding like sheep behind excuses like "lack of political will"?

New Zealand, the trawl is in your court!

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