There is a tendency to think of the deep waters around the British Isles as cold, dark, desolate places that cannot be compared to their vibrant tropical counterparts. Cold and dark, yes, but those of us who have had the privilege to visit and study these areas know that they are anything but desolate. The UK’s deep-sea ecosystems comprise a fantastic variety of life, including cold-water corals, sponge fields, and unique underwater habitats and species.
They are important, beautiful, fragile, and under constant threat from one of the world’s most environmentally destructive and economically wasteful methods of fishing – deep-sea bottom trawling.
This year the UK government has a rare chance to achieve a long-term win for its deep-sea ecosystems, its taxpayers and the public if it seizes a historic opportunity to secure protection for Europe’s deep ocean. Together with 60 of my fellow scientists, including many of the country’s leading marine experts, I have written to fisheries minister George Eustice urging him to take a lead role in the ongoing negotiations over a new EU regulation aimed at overhauling the management of deep-sea fisheries and protecting Europe’s deep-sea ecosystems.
At the moment, the position of the UK in the negotiations is not as ambitious as many scientists – and increasing numbers of citizens – would like. On the positive side, the government supports closing deep-sea areas containing vulnerable marine ecosystems to bottom fishing. But the UK remains opposed to phasing-out the deep-sea bottom trawling and gillnetting that is responsible for decimating so much of its marine heritage.
To put our call into context, consider that deep-sea species constitute only a fraction of 1% of the total annual catch of the nation’s fishing fleet and just 12 of the over 5,000 UK fishing vessels spend any time bottom-trawling below 600 meters deep. Nonetheless, while the numbers may seem low, a single trawler can tow its gear across 5 square kilometres of the seabed in a day. The damage caused by bottom trawling in the deep-sea is likely to be far out of proportion to the economic value of the catch.
But UK vessels, however few, are not the only vessels deep-sea trawling in UK waters. The vast majority of the deep-sea fish caught in UK and Irish waters are taken by heavily-subsidised French and Spanish trawlers, with the catch transported to continental Europe for processing and sale, bringing negligible benefit to the UK economy.
We are only just beginning to comprehend the scale of the losses we stand to suffer if deep-sea fishing is not properly controlled. A study last year by the University of Southampton and the Marine Institute of Ireland estimates that deep-sea fish populations inhabiting the continental slopes off the west coasts of the UK and Ireland sequester approximately 1m tons of CO2 every year, a crucial ecosystem service provided by these species for free – and probably worth more than the deep-sea fishing industry that is depleting them.
We are not calling for an end to all deep-sea fishing. To the extent that deep-sea species can be fished sustainably, it is not necessary to fish with bottom trawl gear. We are calling for a shift to more low-impact, selective gear that will help allow the recovery of damaged deep-sea areas and the rebuilding of depleted fish stocks, and which could strengthen the fishing sector and support more jobs.
The taxpayers of the UK and elsewhere in Europe are propping up a small, unsustainable, wasteful, fuel-intensive fishing practice and unviable industry that is causing irreparable damage to our precious deep-sea ecosystems. This is a clear case of the very few benefiting at the expense of the many.
It makes economic as well as environmental sense for the UK to put a stop to this senseless and wasteful destruction of its outstanding marine heritage, and secure its position as a world leader in meeting 21st century ocean challenges. We urge the minister to follow the best scientific and economic evidence and use his considerable influence to put an end to wanton deep-sea destruction that we can ill afford. This is an opportunity not to be missed.
Alex Rogers is a professor of conservation biology at the department of zoology at the University of Oxford