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Coalition seeks UN halt to deep sea destruction

Greenpeace NZ

7th June 2004

A broad international coalition of environmentalists, The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, today called on the United Nations (UN) to suspend the most destructive fishing practice on the high seas. Bottom trawl fishing in international waters may be wiping out hundreds or even thousands of undiscovered species, says the group. The call came as the Rainbow Warrior reached international waters around New Zealand on its campaign to document bottom trawl destruction.

According to a study released on the opening day of a key UN 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 species.

The author of the new report, Matthew Gianni, visited New Zealand last month, meeting with Ministers, officials and the industry to discuss the UN moratorium.

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. A New Zealand delegation is participating.

The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition is calling on UNICPOLOS delegates to back a UN General Assembly resolution for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. This halt would need to stay until deep sea biodiversity and the sustainability of high seas bottom fishing have been scientifically assessed and legally binding regimes have been established.

"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."

Greenpeace New Zealand Oceans campaigner, Carmen Gravatt on board the Rainbow Warrior expressed her support for the meeting in New York. "While you continue to negotiate, we will continue to sail the high seas to expose the needless destruction. I hope our joint efforts will persuade policy makers to take the steps needed to protect deep sea life before it is too late," stated Gravatt during a live link up to the UN meeting.

Bottom trawling ploughs 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 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 conservation 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.

Oceans campaigner, Carmen Gravatt, on board the Rainbow Warrior pointed out that the high seas is the responsibility of everyone, "It is the duty of ALL nations to conserve the enormous biodiversity of the deep sea and its wealth of species – some of which are yet to be identified or described. Also, it is the duty of ALL nations to work together to protect these common resources."


(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.