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Destructive Fishing Practices

17 October 2007
by eub2 -- last modified 17 October 2007

The European Commission tabled on 17 October 2007 a strategy for the protection of vulnerable deep sea ecosystems from destructive fishing practices. It also adopted a proposal for a legal ban on the use of harmful bottom gear from the high sea areas concerned. This initiative is fully in line with the recommendations issued by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last December. In today's Communication the Commission outlines the initiatives that the EU will take to strengthen international action in the UN, Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) and relevant international conventions to protect vulnerable marine habitats. For high sea areas not yet covered by RFMOs, the Commission proposes an innovative scheme that will require fishermen to obtain authorisation to operate in a defined area prior to starting their fishing campaign. These fishing permits may be issued by the Member State concerned only if it has been ascertained that the planned fishing activities will not have significant adverse impact on fragile habitats. In addition, fishing at depths of more than 1,000 metres would also be prohibited to EU vessels. These initiatives to protect fragile ecosystems on the high seas form part of the proposed EU integrated Maritime Policy aimed at ensuring the sustainable use of the oceans and seas.


What are vulnerable marine habitats? What do we know about them?

When scientists talk about vulnerable marine habitats in the context of the deep sea, they are referring to structures such as cold-water corals, hydrothermal vents, sea mounts or deep sea sponge beds. Not a great deal is known about such structures, but two things are already clear from the research that has been conducted to date: 1. that they function as concentrators of biodiversity in what are otherwise relatively barren and featureless expanses of sea bed; and 2. that they are extremely vulnerable to rapid and irrecoverable destruction by human activity, including in particular by physical contact with bottom fishing gears. Since such features are formed on a time scale which is closer to geology than to biology, there is no way in which this damage can be made good in the next several hundred years. It is therefore even more vital than with other fragile ecosystems, that we adopt a truly precautionary approach to their protection.

What is a 'destructive fishing practice', and what kind of impact does it have?

These habitats can be damaged by many kinds of human activity. Bottom trawling has been singled out by certain environmentalist groups as symbolic of the wreckless destruction which such deep sea features may be subject to, but it is far from the only hazard. Serious damage can also be caused by gear such as dredges, bottom-set gillnets, bottom-set longlines, pots and traps. And the effects of such fishing practices are aggravated when they are combined with the impact of non-fishing activities, such as hydrocarbon prospection, laying of submarine cables, or waste dumping, to name but a few. Actual damage to deep coral reefs has been documented in the Northeast Atlantic, the West Atlantic, the Tasman Sea and other areas in studies which provide compelling evidence of the gravity of the problem and of the urgent need to take decisive protective action.

What kind of measures can and should be implemented to protect such habitats?

The UN General Assembly, in its Resolution 61/105 of December 2006, called on states to take three kinds of action, both individually, and acting together through the Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs):

  • To introduce a systematic obligation of prior environmental impact assessment for all deep sea fishing activities;
  • To improve and strengthen research and data collection activities, so as to facilitate the rapid and timely identification of vulnerable marine ecosystems;
  • To introduce area closures wherever such ecosystems are detected, as well as to impose an obligation on vessels encountering such an ecosystem where none was previously recorded to move on immediately, and to report the location of the habitat they have found without delay to the relevant authorities.

These three kinds of measure meet the three main requirements for any effective system to protect the biodiversity of our deep seas: we need more knowledge; we need a truly precautionary approach, to prevent heedless damage from continuing while we acquire that knowledge, and we need appropriate area-based protection tools that can be implemented quickly and effectively once such habitats have been identified.

The draft regulation proposed by the Commission translates these three recommendations into action for EU vessels fishing in waters for which there is no RFMO or interim arrangement in place. In parallel, the Commission on behalf of the EU will continue to campaign within RFMOs for equivalent rules and measures to be put in place. The interim arrangements adopted this spring, on proposal from the Commission, by the parties to the creation of an RFMO in the South Pacific are a good example of international cooperation to implement the precautionary approach recommended by the UN.

Why does the EU not support a total ban on bottom trawling?

Some parties, including certain states, have called for a blanket ban on bottom trawling throughout the high seas. The Commission, on behalf of the European Union, has consistently argued for a more targeted approach, for two main reasons:

  • Biodiversity in the deep seas is not evenly distributed, but is concentrated in a number of specific areas, which tend to be those where vulnerable marine ecosystems are found. However, fisheries activities can be and often are profitably pursued outside these areas. For example, fisheries such as those for hake, a very important fishery for the EU, take place at depths of around 200 m on top of the continental shelf where the seabed is generally made of sediments. Vessels engaging in these fisheries may extend their operations to the shelf edge where they may encounter corals and sponges that are common on the slopes. It makes sense, then, to assess these fishing operations in advance of their being carried out, establish how they move between safer and riskier areas and determine what freedom of movement the vessels should have and what areas they should definitely avoid. However, to ban all bottom fishing in these areas would serve no environmental purpose, and would cause unnecessary and unjustified economic and social damage to the fishing industry. Any fisheries regulation needs to be perceived by stakeholders to be legitimate and proportionate in order for it to work.
  • A blanket ban on bottom fishing throughout the high seas would only be effective if it could rely on an enforcement system agreed by States. That possibility exists only within RFMOs. That is why our position has been that the matter needs to be addressed by the RFMOs. The proposal of a blanket ban as it was formulated failed to provide any practical mechanism by which the ban could have been enforced. That made the proposal difficult to support.

However, the Commission does recognise the weakness of the situation in regions of the high seas for which no RFMO is in place. They represent such uncharted territory, that Flag states must commit to managing the fleets that operate in these areas with particular rigour, and ensure transparency among them on what is being done in this respect. The principle of precaution is always crucial in fisheries management, but in this context it is truly the only basis for any possible measure, since data on vulnerable marine ecosystems is so scarce. It is for this reason that the Commission is also proposing an absolute ban on fishing with bottom gear in all areas below 1000 metres. This ban extends a similar measure introduced in the Mediterranean last year by the General Commission for Fisheries in the Mediterranean (GCFM), where it has been widely accepted by stakeholders.

What is the EU doing to prevent such damage to deep sea ecosystems within European waters?

The European Union and its Member States have already declared a number of significant areas closed to some or all types of fishing gear in order to protect vulnerable marine habitats in the European Waters. These areas include the very large areas around the Azores and the Canary Islands which are closed to bottom fishing, and more targeted closures in the North East Atlantic west of Ireland, and in the North Sea to the north of Scotland.

More generally, the European Union already has an instrument which enables it to establish Marine Protected Areas, going substantially beyond fisheries closures, within EU waters, in the form of the Natura 2000 network. This network of protected areas is based on the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive, and provides the highest possible level of environmental protection. Certain fisheries closed areas, such as those closed to the West of Ireland earlier this month, have been identified through the Natura 2000 process, and their application for Natura 2000 status is currently being considered.

Why do we need a Regulation for the South West Atlantic? How many EU vessels presently fish there?

The longstanding dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the Falkland/Malvinas Islands has made it impossible to agree on the establishment of a regional management regime for straddling stocks in the south west Atlantic, and it is unlikely that these difficulties can be overcome in the near future.

The EU fleet present in this area operates both within the Falklands Islands Conservation Zone and in the high seas. There are about 20 EC trawlers (flagged to Spain) active in bottom trawl fisheries targeting mainly hakes (Merluccius hubbsi, M. australis) and squid (Illex argentinus, Loligo gahi). In total, the fishery counted about 100 licensed vessels in 2006 including, besides the Spanish fleet, vessels registered in the Falklands and vessels flagged to Korea, China and Chinese Taipei.

A study carried out for the Commission in 2002 reports three main harvesting areas, two of which are in international waters bordering the Argentine EEZ. At these points the seabed falls rather abruptly from 200m to 1000m. This description corresponds to a location where deep water corals and sponges may likely occur on the steep continental slope. Although hakes and squid are harvested mainly on sandy bottoms on the shelf flats, trawls extending beyond the shelf break may be deployed deep and thus threaten to damage any coral reefs they encounter.

How are these fisheries regulated at present?

These fisheries are already subject to national management arrangements imposed by the Flag States of the vessels. In the case of EU vessels, these arrangements include a number of basic requirements stipulated by EU regulations. They are also subject to monitoring, including on-board observers and Vessel Monitoring Systems.

Because the fleet operates both in the Falklands Conservation zone and in the high seas, the vessels involved have licenses delivered by the Falklands Islands Government Fisheries Department. Catch data is collected by the Falkland Islands Government and by the Spanish authorities, and the latter also provide for an on-board observer programme. Research surveys specifically aimed at the identification of vulnerable marine ecosystems in the region have been announced by Spain.

Source: European Commission