Progress, Priorities and Politics in the EU

© Prof Murray Roberts, Herriot Watt University
Images of the seabed before and after deep-sea bottom trawling © Prof Murray Roberts, Herriot Watt University

Deep-sea bottom trawling, where the gear drags along the seabed, is like clear cutting a rainforest to catch tree frogs. It is widely accepted to be amongst the most destructive forms of fishing in use today and the subject of extensive scientific concern and international debate over the past 10 years.

Since 2004, the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) has repeatedly called on countries 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.

The European Union, one of the world’s major fishing powers, has begun to grapple with implementing their UN commitments for deep-sea fisheries in EU waters and across the high seas of the northeast Atlantic.

Orange Roughy copy
Landed deep-sea fish species © Marine Photobank

The current regulation for the management of EU deep-sea fisheries in the northeast Atlantic, adopted in 2002, has left most deep-sea stocks outside safe biological limits, and has not restored some of the most depleted fish populations such as deep-sea sharks. It has also failed to protect vulnerable coral, sponge, and seamount ecosystems from adverse impacts of highly destructive bottom fishing.

The EU is in a unique position to be a game-changer – to assert global leadership in protecting vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems and ensure that deep-sea species are fished sustainably.

In July 2012, the European Commission issued a legislative proposal to overhaul the EU’s regulation of deep-sea fisheries including phasing-out of the use of bottom-trawl and bottom-gillnet fishing to target deep-sea species.

© Greenpeace
Deep-sea bottom trawler © Greenpeace

Before entering into force, the proposal has to be agreed by the European Parliament and the Council of Fisheries Ministers from the EU’s 28 Member States.

In December 2013, after continual delays and an aggressive campaign by a number of deep-sea trawling industry associations, the European Parliament voted to strengthen the text in many areas but the proposal to phase out deep-sea bottom trawling and bottom gillnetting was narrowly defeated by a vote of 342 to 326. However, 20 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) later formally corrected their vote and, although such corrections do not change the text adopted, it is clear that a majority of those who voted were also in favour of eliminating these destructive deep-sea fishing practices.

The Council of Fisheries Ministers has yet to agree its position.

© Marine Photobank
Deep-sea coral reef habitat © Brooke et. al., NOAA OE 2005/Marine Photobank

Managing the activities of a huge fleet working at great depth, and with little real understanding of the habitats and biodiversity in the deep sea, is no mean feat. Many scientists are concerned that as a result of deep-sea bottom trawling, we may be losing unique species and habitats before they have been even discovered.

Concluding the reform of the EU Deep sea regulation is urgent if the EU is to manage sustainable fishing for deep-sea species and protect the deep-sea ecosystems associated with the seabed.

The deep sea now stands at a crossroads.

What could the EU gain by a phase-out of deep-sea bottom trawling and bottom gillnet fishing in EU waters?

Phasing-out of deep-sea bottom trawling would bring multiple benefits, including:

• Protecting deep-sea biodiversity from unnecessary destruction;
• Protecting species such as deepwater sharks from extinction;
• Helping the EU steer clear of costly fishing techniques with a high carbon footprint;
• Maintaining the capacity of deep-sea species and deep-sea sediments in EU waters to act as CO2 sinks;
• Preserving opportunities to find unique genetic material in deep-sea species that could be used to develop new medicines or industrial products;
• Ensuring long-term benefits for future generations by making marine ecosystems productive and resilient in the face of global climate change;
• Maintaining the EU’s international reputation as forward-thinking with regards to responding to marine challenges of the 21st Century;
• Joining the scientific mobilisation in favour of the phase-out of deep-sea bottom trawling; and
• Simply doing the right thing… for its fishing communities and EU economies, for the health and productivity of its waters, and for natural ecosystems.

What does the EU stand to lose by allowing continued bottom trawling on the continental slope and other deep-sea areas?

• Loss of deep-sea habitats important to the productivity of deep-sea fish stocks;
• Loss of deep-sea biodiversity;
• Potential loss of species before they have been discovered;
• Potential loss of opportunities to find unique genetic material in deep-sea species that could be used to develop new medicines or industrial products;
• Loss of the ecosystem services that deep-sea fish species and ecosystems provide, such as carbon sequestration; and
• Loss of future, but as yet unknown, benefits to the people of the European Union.
• Loss of any ethical or moral high ground from reneging on commitments made at the UN.
• Sacrificing political leadership position with respect to sustainable management of the ocean’s resources.

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