EU Decision-Makers Finally Draw a Line Under Deep-Sea Bottom Trawling

On 30 June, representatives of the European Parliament, Council of Ministers, and European Commission agreed key provisions for a new European Union regulation on deep-sea fishing that includes a ban on bottom trawling below 800 meters in EU waters and establishes an obligation and procedures to close deep-sea areas to bottom fishing where vulnerable marine ecosystems are known or likely to occur. 

Why is this important

The deep ocean is one of the most biologically diverse areas of the planet. Over the past several decades, EU fishing fleets have moved into deeper waters in the northeast Atlantic as coastal and continental shelf fisheries became fully or over-exploited. Bottom trawling, the most common method of bottom fishing in the deep sea, consists of dragging huge, weighted and unselective fishing nets along the seafloor catching and depleting slow growing, long-lived species of fish and damaging or destroying deep-water coral, sponge, and other vulnerable habitats that have flourished for thousands of years.

Numerous scientific papers and reports have consistently identified bottom-trawl fishing as the greatest threat to deep-sea coral and sponge ecosystems. The depletion and destruction of these species and habitats represents a major loss of biodiversity and compromises the capacity of deep-sea ecosystems in to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

A long road

The agreement reached in June comes four years after the Commission published a proposal for a new regulation to manage deep-sea fishing in the northeast Atlantic. The Commission proposal followed concerns dating back to the early 2000s when the UN General Assembly first began debating, then adopting, a series of landmark resolutions calling on States to take urgent action to protect deep-sea ecosystems from the harmful impacts of bottom fishing.

A 2007 review by the Commission concluded that the current EU deep-sea fisheries legislation, adopted in 2002, has failed to maintain most deep-sea fisheries within safe biological limits or to protect vulnerable deep-sea marine ecosystems from highly destructive fishing practices. It nonetheless took another five years before the Commission finally proposed a new regulation for the management of the EU’s deep-sea fisheries in the northeast Atlantic. Amongst the elements of the new regulation proposed by the Commission was a provision to prohibit the use of bottom trawl gear to ‘target’ deep-sea species.

The Commission proposal, released in July 2012, needed to be reviewed by both the European Parliament and Council of the EU’s 28 fisheries ministers, and then a final version agreed by all three institutions, to become law. However, negotiations started slowly.

On 10 December 2013, the European Parliament finally concluded its ‘first reading’ adding many positive provisions for protecting vulnerable ecosystems to the draft legislation. However, despite a widely-backed proposal to limit deep-sea bottom trawling to 600m, and hundreds of scientists and hundreds of thousands of EU citizens calling for a ban on deep-sea bottom trawling, the Parliament, after heavy pressure from the deep-sea trawl industry, narrowly voted for an alternate proposal which precluded adopting a phase-out of deep-sea bottom trawling. Later voting ‘corrections’ indicated that a majority of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) did support a phase-out of some sort but the corrections came too late to change the formal decision of the Parliament.

With the ball back in the court of the Council of Fisheries Ministers, campaigners continued to urge the rotating Council Presidencies to make progress a priority, and to persuade key EU member States to support a depth-based ban on deep-sea bottom trawling. Delays however continued as presidencies were reluctant to take up the file, anticipating objections from France and Spain.

Meanwhile, following public pressure, in early 2014 the major French deep-sea fleet, Scapêche, committed to end bottom-trawling below 800 metres. Despite previous opposition France, under the leadership of Ecology Minister Ségolène Royal, eventually went on to support a limit to deep-sea bottom trawling as did other influential EU member states including the UK.

In 2015, the Latvian presidency took up the file followed by Luxembourg which led the Council, with the support of the Commission, to adopt a formal Council position in November 2015 favouring a ban of bottom trawling below 800 metres. The Council, represented by the Netherlands who took up the presidency in January 2016, then went into ‘trilogue’ negotiations with the Commission and the Parliament. A political agreement was finally concluded on 30 June 2016, the last day of the Netherlands presidency.

Conclusion of the legislative process

The European Parliament and Council are on track to adopt the final regulation in late 2016. It will then become law.

What’s in the new Regulation

The measures adopted in the new regulation represent a considerable improvement to the current deep-sea fisheries regulation in force since 2002, and go a good way towards meeting the commitments made by the EU at the UN General Assembly and applying them to protect deep-sea ecosystems in EU waters.

  • A prohibition of bottom trawling below 800 meters:

The new regulation will prohibit bottom trawling below 800 metres in EU waters and by EU vessels in a large portion of the international waters in the central east Atlantic surrounding the Canary and Madeira Islands. The 800 metre depth prohibition is a compromise reached between legislators who rejected any form of ban on bottom trawling and those who supported a ban below 600 metres.

Recent science highlights that below 600 metres the number of fish species impacted increases significantly while the value of the catch declines. The catch of particularly vulnerable species of sharks and rays also increases dramatically below 600 metres, i.e. going deeper causes greater and greater damage for a reducing benefit to fishermen. Moreover, a prohibition of bottom trawling at 600 metres would provide greater protection to cold-water coral reef ecosystems in EU waters.

Nonetheless, the 800 metre prohibition, together with other measures in the new regulation (described below), is a major step toward the protection of vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems, provided that the full suite of measures contained in the new regulation are effectively implemented.

  • A rigorous process for identifying and closing areas to bottom fishing below 400 metres where vulnerable marine ecosystems are known or likely to occur, as such implementing in the EU commitments made when adopting UN resolutions.
  • Freezing the deep-sea bottom-fishing footprint for vessels defined as ‘targeting’ deep-sea species on the basis of a three-year reference period 2009-2011.
  • Requirements to carry-out an impact assessment prior to fishing in new areas outside of the footprint for vessels targeting deep-sea species, following criteria established by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the UN General Assembly.
  • Mandatory observer coverage on at least 20% of vessels using bottom trawls or bottom set gillnets to target deep-sea species, and on at least 10% of all other vessels authorised to catch deep-sea species. Unlike other aspects of the Regulation, these provisions will also apply to boats fishing in international waters of the northeast Atlantic.


The European Commission had initially proposed that the new regulation cover both EU and international waters of the northeast Atlantic and the international waters of a portion of the eastern-central Atlantic (CECAF) area, a proposal that was endorsed by the European Parliament. The Council, however, under strong pressure from Spain, decided to support restricting the scope of the regulation to EU waters only in the northeast Atlantic, as well as the international waters of the CECAF area, and this is reflected in the final agreement with Parliament. As a result, the Spanish deep-sea trawl fleet fishing in the international waters of the northeast Atlantic will be exempted from most of the provisions, including the prohibition on bottom trawling below 800 metres depth.

Nonetheless, the total area of European Union waters to which this prohibition will apply equals approximately 932,000 square kilometres of the North Sea and the northeast Atlantic Ocean that lie below 800 metres depth (an area larger than the size of Spain and Germany combined). Most importantly, approximately 15% of this area, some 143,000 square kilometres, consists of the continental slope along the European margin and adjacent seamounts between 800 and 1,500 metres deep, the maximum depth that bottom trawling generally occurs in this region. These areas are recognized to be areas of high diversity of fish species and rich in deep-water bottom habitat forming species such as cold water reefs, coral gardens, deep-sea sponges and infaunnal sediment ecosystems. Bottom trawling will no longer be permitted in these areas nor elsewhere below 800 meters.

In the international waters of the CECAF area of the central Atlantic off west Africa, EU vessels will be prohibited from bottom trawling on approximately 70 of the 100 seamounts whose peaks are shallower than 1,500 meters deep. This is in addition to the prohibition of bottom trawling on seamounts that lie within the EEZs of the Azores, Madeira, and Canary Islands which have been protected from bottom trawling since 2005.

See how the new Regulation compares to what went before and UN commitments

What now

We will urge vigorous implementation and encourage the EU to continue working with other countries to enhance the protection of deep-sea ecosystems in international waters.

In the second half of 2016, the UN General Assembly will review progress on the implementation, by the EU and other countries, of the landmark resolutions adopted over the past ten years committing them to take urgent action to either regulate deep-sea fishing, in particular deep-sea bottom trawling, to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems, or to stop deep-sea fishing on the high seas. 

Setting fishing limits for deep-sea species

Because deep-sea fish live in extremely cold water and at great depths with no exposure to sunlight, most mature slowly and reproduce late in their long lives, e.g. the orange roughy can live to 150 years of age and does not reproduce until it is 25 to 30 years old. Deep-sea species are therefore particularly at risk of over-fishing. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists two of the main fish species of commercial value targeted by French and Spanish deep-sea trawl fisheries off the Irish and Scottish coasts as endangered (roundnose grenadier) and vulnerable (blue ling) and a number of species of deep-sea sharks caught as ‘bycatch’ in these and other deep-sea fisheries as endangered or critically endangered.

The Parliament’s first reading included provisions on fishing limits for deep-sea species and bycatch prevention. With the adoption of the reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), Council insisted that such measures were not necessary in the new regulation. The Council of EU Fisheries Ministers will however be setting Total Allowable Catches (TACs) for deep-sea species later this year and we urge them, unlike last time, to agree science-based and precautionary limits as required by the CFP. 


The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition is an organisation of more than 70 non-governmental environmental organisations, fishers’ groups, and law and policy institutes that are committed to protecting the deep sea. We express our thanks to our NGO partners including The Pew Charitable Trusts and Bloom Association. We also pay credit to the European Commission, the many MEPs and EU member state ministers and officials who worked to secure this agreement, those in the fishing industry who constructively engage in conservation efforts, and the many scientists and hundreds of thousands of other EU citizens who raised their voices to call for the protection of one of Europe’s largest, and uniquely vulnerable, environments.

©image courtesty of Plymouth University/Deeplinks