And Ban Deepwater Bottom Trawling Too

This was one of the most embarrassing failures in the sad history of failures in fisheries management.

In 2006, a UN Committee considered a proposal for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. The US and the EU supported it. But when a proposal is still in UN committee, one committee member can refuse to agree, and so sabotage an initiative supported by all the others. Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Canada and Iceland, all of them enthused trawling nations, were represented.

Trawler under the Belize flag, working south of Tasmania, followed by patient albatrosses. (

The one hold-out was Iceland – afraid of any initiative that might curtail its access to high seas fishing. So the moratorium proposal never left the committee, killed by one self-centered, arrogant little country. Who made such absurd rules?

It could have been worse – Canada and Spain also resisted the proposal until the very last minute. Why Canada abruptly changed its mind is not clear, but we probably shouldn’t underestimate the power of ridicule.

With the new gear and ships available, deep-water bottom trawlers can now reach into very deep water – even to depths of 2000 meters. There they can scrape up communities that may take decades, even centuries to recover.

A net full of orange roughy, trawled up from a sea mount off New Zealand. The fish take 30 years to reach maturity, and live for a hundred years or more. (

On hard deep-water substrates, like on the tops of submerged sea mounts, an extraordinary cold-water coral community exists, along with huge schools of very slow growing cold-water fish, like the orange roughy. Deep water trawlers have wrecked these communities wherever they have found them – the before and after photographs are as discouraging as any ever taken of the effects of our harvesting actions. One pass by a trawler will destroy 50% of the reef in its path. On sea mounts around South Australia, as much as 90% has been destroyed.

Cold, deep water coral communities are complex, fragile and slow growing, easily destroyed by deep-water bottom trawls (

Everyone knows this this is short-sighted and indefensible, but stopping it is another matter.

It has been left to individual countries to take what initiatives they want to in their own EEZs, and to regional clusters of countries to develop treaties related to high seas, international waters. There is some hope now that it won’t get too much worse.

The US responded by banning bottom trawling over a large part of the Gulf of Alaska, near the Aleutians, in the northwest Hawaiian Islands, and along most of the Pacific coast – really a very significant action. Through the efforts of FAO, bottom-trawling at depths greater than 1000m has been banned in the Mediterranean. New Zealand has also banned deep water trawling in 1/3 of its EEZ, which sounds positive, except that some of it had already been trawled and wrecked, and many other parts are too deep to be reached by trawls.

Sea mounts in the Mediterranean, and in the EEZs of Norway, Scotland, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand waters have been protected as well. Kiribati also banned all commercial fishing, including deep-water bottom trawling, in a huge new marine reserve, but has only a single patrol boat to enforce anything. These are small successes.

Kiribati, in 2008, formed the world's largest marine protected area, named the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. Kiribati's long term existence is threatened by rising sea levels. (

Now, in both the South and North Pacific, treaties have emerged that regulate fishing in international waters. Until 2010, really no rules really existed. Now, in both areas, covering millions of square miles, no expansion of fishing is possible, and fishing on sensitive areas is banned unless it can be shown that no damage will be done. The fishing nations agree to apply the principles of the precautionary approach and sustainable fishing. Bottom-trawlers get special attention, with 100% of them carrying observers whose job is too keep them honest. Oceana and FAO have again been involved, and they sound pleased. It isn’t a moratorium, but then this isn’t a perfect world either.

International waters in the North Pacific (light blue) and the South Pacific (dark blue) are now protected from any increase in deep-water bottom trawling. EEZs of coastal nations are medium blue. (

Of course, there is still plenty of work to be done. But it is truly possible that, perhaps sometime soon, bottom trawling will be banned globally.

Imagine that.

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