This week the United Nations General Assembly is discussing a moratorium on deep-sea bottom trawling, a measure which numerous scientists from all over the world believe is essential to preserve the sustainability and biodiversity of the oceans.
“It is an alarmist report with no scientific foundation”. With these disparaging words, Fernando Curcio, the Spanish government’s General Director of Fisheries Resources, dismissed the results of a study prepared under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC). The report was presented in London at the beginning of last week by Dr. Alex Rogers from the London Zoological Society. According to the press, Curcio then went on to say that “Spanish boats trawl in the South-West Atlantic over a sandy shelf where there is nothing to protect.”
These statements from the representative of the General Secretariat of Maritime Fisheries at the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture are an attempt to minimise the influence that this new scientific report may have on the UN General Assembly discussions. Government representatives will be discussing the proposed moratorium on bottom trawling in international waters, which is supported by numerous European, American and Pacific region countries, but is being blocked by Spain, Canada, Russia and South Korea.
The seamounts that dot the ocean depths are areas of highly concentrated biodiversity which are under huge threat from bottom trawling. Scientific studies have demonstrated that serious and irreparable damage is being caused not only to the target species found in these habitats but also the sea beds themselves, which are destroyed by nets, chains and metal doors weighing hundreds of kilos being dragged across them. This is why scientists are claiming that ocean beds in international waters urgently need some kind of regulation that puts a stop to their overexploitation and the destruction of their environments.
Although the European Union has banned this kind of activity in certain areas where habitats of great natural value can be found, most of the environmentally fragile areas in international waters are bereft of any such regulation. For this reason, Oceana and another sixty organisations around the world which form part of the DSCC (Deep Sea Conservation Coalition) are supporting the efforts that many governments are making at the UN General Assembly in recognition of the recommendations made by the international scientific community.
The exact number and location of large seamounts is still not fully known. However, this has not prevented bottom trawling fleets from a small number of countries from embarking on the unsustainable exploitation of these extremely vulnerable ecosystems, using bottom trawling gear which has a huge impact on them. Having severely exploited commercial species such as hake and cod over the continental shelf and in territorial Exclusive Economic Zones, fishing fleets then decided to move on to the high seas where they now concentrate on catching other target species such as the golden eye perch (Beryx splendens), orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus), roundnose grenadier (Coryphaenoides rupestris), redfish (Sebastes sp.), Greenland halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides), etc.
The impact from this fishing gear is indisputable in the case of the Spanish fleet, a country which was responsible for 40% of catches in 2001, followed by the Russian fleet with 11% and the Portuguese, Estonian and Norwegian fleets with 7%. In economic terms, this generated some 220 to 300 million euros, which represents 0.5% of world catches. According to Oceana, these low catch figures and their economic insignificance compared to the total world catch is completely disproportionate to the serious environmental impact that the aggressive fishing practices of bottom trawling inflict on the sea beds.
“It’s deplorable that the process instigated by the United Nations to ban bottom trawling in highly vulnerable areas is being blocked by countries such as Spain in complete disregard for the principles of precaution and sustainability of resources that the FAO has called for” says fisheries biologist Xavier Pastor, the Executive Director of Oceana in Europe.
“In fact, a strategic vision, even in the short and medium term, should mean that a fishing country such as Spain would be the most interested party in ensuring the environmental protection and biodiversity of the oceans. This is what will guarantee the sustainability of fisheries resources, which a sensibly-sized fleet practising responsible fishing could exploit indefinitely. Spain, as a country, should be spearheading the conservation of the seas, instead of almost always forming part of the group of countries which just put obstacles in the way of most of the international community’s measures to try to put a stop to the collapse of marine ecosystems and fish stocks,” states fisheries biologist Xavier Pastor.