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ENVIRONMENT: Trawling Moratorium Dead in the Water

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Nov 23 2006 (IPS) - Iceland and a few other fishing nations have successfully undermined a three-year international effort to place a moratorium on destructive deep-sea trawling.

Environmentalists say that the agreement reached at a U.N. meeting early Thursday morning puts the commercial interests of a few hundred trawlers from a handful of nations ahead of the international community and ignores the advice of the scientific community.

“The final agreement has more loopholes in it than a fisherman’s sweater,” said Karen Sack, an oceans policy advisor with Greenpeace International, who has been monitoring the negotiations at the U.N.

“The oceans are in crisis. It (the agreement) does nothing to significantly change the way our oceans are managed,” Sack told IPS.

Scientists and conservationists had hoped for a moratorium on bottom trawling in the open ocean.

“Iceland refused to endorse any measures on the unregulated high seas,” said Susanna Fuller, a marine biologist with Canada’s Ecology Action Centre.

Australia, Chile and other nations were extremely angry at Iceland’s willingness to sacrifice vital fish habitat in the high seas for its short-term fishing interests, said Fuller, who attended the meetings in New York as an observer.

While New Zealand, the Pacific Island States, the United States, Brazil, India, South Africa, Germany and even previously reluctant Spain and Canada supported stronger action, the desire to achieve a consensus meant Iceland’s interests won out over common sense and the science, Fuller told IPS.

Scientific evidence of the need to halt unregulated deep-sea or bottom trawling is overwhelming.

Trawlers literally drag a large net equipped with steel rollers weighing thousands of pounds along the bottom of the deep sea, scooping up everything in their 100-metre-wide paths. Everything, including cold-water corals that have taken thousands of years to grow, endangered and unknown deep-water fish and other sea creatures, are hauled to the surface and then thrown over the side as garbage.

“It’s like using a bulldozer in a rainforest to catch songbirds,” said Arlo Hemphill, a conservation officer with D O E R Marine, a company that designs equipment for deep sea exploration.

The unwanted bycatch is much greater with trawlers, which also destroy fish habitat and in turn affect fish populations, Hemphill said in an interview.

A U.N. Draft Environmental Report released earlier this month clearly stated that trawling is damaging the ocean ecosystems.

Over half of the oceans’ underwater mountain and coral ecosystems are located beyond national boundaries, leaving them unregulated and vulnerable to the practice known as bottom trawling, the report found.

“Our research actively demonstrates the vulnerability of deep-sea corals and their associated biodiversity to trawling across seamounts,” said Alex Rogers, the report’s co-author and a senior research fellow at the Zoological Society of London.

“Some of the corals destroyed are thousands of years old and will not be replaced,” Rogers said in a statement.

Governments and fisheries need to demonstrate that these regions can be fished without destroying these irreplaceable ecosystems, he said.

Much damage has already been done. Scientists recently conducting the first-ever deep sea exploration of unique methane seeps off New Zealand’s east coast discovered unknown species and extensive evidence of trawler damage 1,000 metres down on the sea floor. At all the sites they explored they found trawl marks, lost fishing gear, and extensive areas of deep-sea coral rubble.

“The researchers thought the area was untouched,” said Sack.

Green groups say that the mounting scientific evidence of failing ocean fish populations – and with most nations agreeing that trawling is damaging – ought to have produced an international consensus on the need to control or halt unregulated bottom trawling of the high seas.

“For policymakers, short-term interests nearly always trumps the long-term future interest,” Sack said.

Thursday’s agreement will be part of the U.N. Fisheries Resolution due to be adopted by the General Assembly on Dec. 7.

The one positive outcome of the agreement is that countries with Regional Fisheries Management Organisations, mainly in the North Atlantic and Antarctic oceans and the Mediterranean Sea, said they will assess the impacts of trawling in their regions, Fuller noted.

And where there are impacts, they promised to put these areas off-limits to trawling.

But on the high seas, it will be business as usual thanks to Iceland’s intransigence and the unwillingness of other nations to oppose it, say critics of the agreement.

Conservationists are calling on countries that supported the moratorium to set up a global network of marine parks and reserves.

“Something has to happen in the future to protect habitat or we’ll simply run out of fish,” Fuller said.

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