World's leading scientists urge governments to protect the deep sea

Feature story - February 16, 2004
Over 1000 of the world's foremost marine scientists released a strong statement calling on governments and the UN to act swiftly to protect the imperiled biological diversity of vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems. The statement was released simultaneously at the Summit for Life on Earth, the meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in the USA.

The Scientists urge the United Nations to establish a moratorium on the most destructive fishing method: bottom trawling on the High Seas. They urge individual nations and states to ban bottom trawling to protect deep-sea ecosystems wherever coral forests and reefs are known to occur within their Exclusive Economic Zones. They urge them to prohibit roller and rockhopper trawls, which allow fishermen to trawl on the rough bottoms where deep-sea corals are most likely to occur. Governments are urged to support research and mapping of deep-sea coral and sponge communities. And they ask governments to establish effective, representative networks of marine protected areas that include deep-sea coral and sponge communities.

Scientists have recently discovered undersea coral forests and reefs scattered throughout the cold and deep ocean waters of the world. Some corals resemble "trees" up to 10 meters tall; others form dense thickets. Hundreds or thousands of species live in these cold-water coral forests and reefs, leading scientists to call them the "rainforests of the deep." But even before scientists can find them, deep-sea coral ecosystems are being destroyed by commercial fishing, especially bottom trawling.

Deep-sea bottom trawlers are fishing vessels that drag huge nets with steel weights or heavy rollers along the seafloor to catch Deep Water fish species. The trawls smash corals and sponges and rip them from the seafloor.

"Bottom-trawling in the deep-sea is like clear-cutting a pristine ancient forest. Each trawl destroys everything in its path. In the interest of catching a few fish, hundreds of species -some of which have not even been identified - are destroyed," said Thilo Maack of Greenpeace. "Governments at the Convention on Biological Diversity must pass a resolution recommending that the United Nations General Assembly adopt an immediate moratorium on high seas bottom trawling and put an immediate halt to this destructive activity."