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ENVIRONMENT: Canada Fights Ban on “Bulldozers of the Sea”

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Oct 12 2006 (IPS) - Canada is trying to scuttle a proposed United Nations moratorium on destructive bottom trawling of the open ocean that has received surprisingly strong support from the United States, as well as other countries.

“Canada’s attitude towards the oceans is embarrassing and archaic,” said Elliott Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, a scientific environmental group in Washington State.

“Canada treats the oceans as if nothing could harm them,” Norse told IPS.

The U.N. General Assembly started debate this week on an Australian-led plan for a temporary moratorium on deep-sea bottom trawling in unmanaged high seas and to impose tougher regulation of other destructive fishing practices.

Because of Canada’s good international reputation, other nations are listening and that greatly increases the risks the U.N. will not act on the proposed moratorium, Norse said.

Canada’s opposition, especially from a recently elected government, comes as a surprise.

“Canada doesn’t have any open ocean trawlers and has everything to gain from a ban,” Norse pointed out.

Trawlers have moved into the unregulated high seas in the past 20 years because of the decline in coastal fish stocks. These huge vessels drag their heavily weighted nets along richly productive undersea mountains called seamounts at depths of more than 1,200 metres.

Like ocean-going bulldozers, they scoop everything in their 100-metre-wide paths, including enormous amounts of unwanted sea creatures, the so-called bycatch, while the net’s huge steel rollers and doors weighing several thousand pounds crush the ancient coral habitat that is needed to produce the next generation of fish.

“It’s not much better than blowing up coral reefs with dynamite to get fish,” said Norse.

There’s little scientific debate about the destructive nature of this of type of fishing. Studies in the Tasman Sea near New Zealand have found that seamounts heavily fished by trawlers are now 95 percent bare rock, compared with five percent rock on unfished seamounts.

Fish and coral grow slowly in the colder, nutrient-poor open ocean and recovery is measured in centuries or millennia – if at all, Norse says.

“The U.N. has been debating this issue for three years while the problem keeps getting worse,” said Lisa Speer of the Natural Resources Defence Council, a U.S.-based environmental group.

“Fleets ply vast areas of open ocean beyond the reach of any national jurisdiction and they are doing irreparable damage to some of the oldest and most unique ecosystems on earth,” said Speer in a release.

Although the U.S. has opposed numerous international environmental conventions in the past, this time, President George W. Bush is on board. In a memo issued last week, Bush directed officials to oppose any fishing practices “that destroy the long-term natural productivity of fish stocks or habitats such as seamounts, corals, and sponge fields for short-term gain”.

There are only a few hundred bottom trawlers operating in the high seas, owned mostly by European countries and Japan. Their catch amounts to less than 0.5 percent of the fish taken from the seas each year. And nearly all is sold to wealthy nations like Canada, the U.S., Japan and Europe.

“High seas trawling isn’t about food, it’s only about making money,” said Norse.

And yet without even one trawler calling Canada home, Canada has consistently opposed a U.N.-backed moratorium since it was first proposed in 2004.

A public poll done last January showed that 78.3 percent of Canadians believe their government should reverse its current position on high seas bottom trawling and support a moratorium in international waters.

Instead of a moratorium, “Canada supports putting regional fisheries management organisations in place in unregulated areas of the high seas,” said Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Minister Loyola Hearn.

“Canada, like many other responsible fishing nations, does not see a blanket ban as the way forward,” Hearn said in statement.

The unregulated areas of the sea comprise about 65 percent of the world’s oceans, an impossibly vast area to monitor and police, although that is what the Canadian proposal suggests.

“That’s not a solution and even if it could be done it would take many years to set up,” said Greenpeace Canada Executive Director Bruce Cox.

In an interview, Cox expressed “extreme disappointment and frustration” with Hearn’s position.

“It leaves people around the world shaking their heads in bewilderment,” he said.

Both Cox and Norse speculate that despite Canada’s claim of “being a nation that fishes responsibly”, it doesn’t want to have to follow similar measures in its own waters.

Neither Hearn nor DFO officials responded to an IPS request for an interview.

Canada’s fishery management has a spotty record at best. The DFO is widely acknowledged as having managed the northern Cod fishery on its Atlantic doorstep into virtual extinction. And in the Pacific, the DFO continues to allow salmon farming in the open ocean despite scientific evidence that parasites from those farms are killing millions of wild Pacific salmon.

Norse hopes the public outcry at home and internationally will be large enough to persuade Canada to withdraw its opposition. However, that will have to happen relatively quickly as the U.N. General Assembly is expected to vote on the temporary moratorium later this fall.

“It is amoral to destroy the last, best natural places on the earth to provide food delicacies for wealthy people,” he said.

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