Another year of destruction on the high seas
Twelve years ago, the United Nations General Assembly took decisive action to protect the world’s ocean life from a uniquely destructive form of fishing. In light of unassailable evidence that high seas drift nets, which stretched for miles just beneath the ocean surface, were killing tens of thousands of marine mammals, sea birds, sea turtles and other marine wildlife every year, the UN voted to ban them, even though some of the world’s richest and powerful nations were among their most frequent users.
UN steps to take decisive action were cynically sabotaged primarily by the countries of the European Union.
Last week, the General Assembly was confronted with evidence of the wanton destruction being caused by another form of fishing. This time, however, any possible UN steps to take decisive action were cynically sabotaged primarily by the countries of the European Union. Many European countries had been among the most forceful advocates of a drift nets ban but now evidently view the future of two-thirds of the planet’s surface as secondary to their short-term self-interests.
The fishery in question is the high seas bottom trawl fishery, in which giant nets armed with steel plates and heavy rollers are dragged across the sea-bed, scooping up almost everything in their path and destroying most of whatever is left. In Norwegian waters, an estimated one-third to one-half of deep-water coral reefs have been damaged or destroyed by trawling; photographs document giant trawl scars up to 4 kilometres long. In 1997, a bottom trawl fishery south of Australia brought up an estimated 10,000 tons of deep-water coral to catch less than 4,000 tons of orange roughy, the fish it was targeting.
Although the deep sea was once considered all but devoid of life, it is now reckoned that as many as 10 million species may live in, on, or just above the sea bed, making this cold, dark region one of the most bountiful on Earth. But bottom trawling threatens to wipe out millions of species in our lifetime many of these species grow and mature slowly, and many are highly limited in their distribution, leaving their populations almost uniquely vulnerable to the effects of such damaging human activities. If unchecked, bottom trawling threatens to wipe out millions of species in our lifetime, a scale of ecological devastation matched only by the wholesale destruction of the tropical rainforests.
Despite this, the small number of bottom trawling nations—in particular Spain, which is responsible for 40 per cent of the global catch, with other EU nations accounting for an additional 20 per cent—have fiercely resisted any attempt to bring the unregulated bottom trawl fishery under even the most rudimentary oversight. Frustrated by such intransigence, a few countries, led by Costa Rica and Palau, took the emergency measure of bringing the matter before the General Assembly, urging the world body to impose a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. Once again, the European Union, and especially Spain, directed by their industry-beholden fisheries ministries, successfully worked overtime to block the proposal before it even got off the ground.
While on November 16 2004, the assembly did pass a resolution which referred to bottom trawling as a “destructive practice,” that resolution stopped far short of a moratorium and instead called on countries to take undertake any regulations on an individual basis and within regional fishery management bodies. They knew full well that this is not likely to achieve immediate results.
Such naked obstructionism will not silence the calls for more meaningful action, but will only make them louder. A strong and growing coalition of environmental organizations and fishers’ groups from across the globe is continuing to lobby officials and mobilize public support for action. The drift nets ban ultimately was forced upon fishing nations by the overwhelming force of public opinion; in the same vein, an informed and energized global populace will demand that Spain and its allies face up to their responsibilities and save the deep sea from further destruction—while there is still something left to save.
Greenpeace, Oceana, MCBI and Exoceanos are members of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, an international alliance of organisations, representing millions of people in countries around the world, which is calling for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling.