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UN lobbied to ban bottom trawl fishing
Reporter: Kirsten Aiken

ABC Online

6th October 2004

TONY EASTLEY: Scientists and conservation groups agree that the practice of bottom trawl fishing which often takes place in unregulated international waters is stripping the high seas of unique species.

The question is, what can be done about it?

A coalition of green groups has spoken out in London as part of an 11th-hour mission to lobby the United Nations General Assembly, which will debate whether to implement a moratorium on bottom trawl fishing.

London Reporter Kirsten Aiken.

KIRSTEN AIKEN: It's not often scientists and conservationists can reach general agreement, but Bunny McDermott from Greenpeace says that's exactly what's happened in relation to bottom trawl fishing, the practice which sees fishing vessels trawl through seabed habitats up to 1,000 metres below the ocean surface.

BUNNY MCDERMOTT: There were 1,100 scientists earlier this year that called on the UN for urgent action. It's very rare for scientists to be out in front of environmental organisations, but in this case they are, and I think the policymakers have to seriously listen to what they're saying.

KIRSTEN AIKEN: The Russians began bottom trawl fishing in the 1960s. It's come to the attention of the United Nations in the past three years, because of an increase in the number of vessels carrying out the practice.

British Antarctic Surveys' principle investigator in biodiversity research, Dr Alex Rogers, estimates 300 trawlers are causing irreversible damage to seabed habitats around the world.

ALEX ROGERS: At the moment there's a small fleet of deepwater fishing vessels which are fishing on seamounts around the world, and on these seamounts there are these very dramatic communities of deep sea corals and sponges and other animals.

They have a very high diversity of other organisms associated with them, and the trawls essentially scrape along the seabed and destroy all of these animals which are attached to the sea floor.

KIRSTEN AIKEN: Is there anything that you could compare what this practice actually looks like, say, on land?

ALEXA ROGERS: Yeah, I mean it's very like this clear cutting of old growth rainforest that goes on in the tropics, and there are many parallels with this, because these deepwater coral reefs that live on some of these seamounts are thousands of years old. Off the coast of Europe we've estimated the age of some of these reefs at eight-and-a-half thousand years.

KIRSTEN AIKEN: Greenpeace likens the fishing industry's growing enthusiasm for bottom trawling to gold rush fever. Both Bunny McDermott and Alex Rogers say it's imperative the UN implements an interim moratorium, if only to buy the seamount ecosystems more time, while long-term sustainable fishing measures can be negotiated.

BUNNY MCDERMOTT: There are only 11 countries that are, at the moment, seriously involved in bottom trawling on the high seas. The trend is, though, that the more that we fish out our exclusive economic zones the more fishermen are going to move offshore, so now is the time to put in place mechanisms that can protect this for all of us.

ALEX ROGERS: Well, scientists don't normally agree on these types of issues, and this is the first time I've really heard of a large number of scientists all saying this practice is extremely bad for the oceans, it's potentially eliminating species before we've even discovered them.

TONY EASTLEY: Dr Alex Rogers from the British Antarctic Survey speaking to Kirsten Aiken in London.