In a move to protect deep-sea ecosystems, more than 20 nations have agreed to strict, voluntary limits on the practice of bottom trawling on the high seas of the South Pacific region. The agreement calls for closure of areas to bottom fishing where vulnerable ecosystems – including seamounts and cold-water corals – are known to exist or likely to occur. Because bottom-trawling activity in the region focuses on seamounts, the accord could effectively end this fishing practice in the South Pacific.
The agreement takes effect on 30 September 2007 and will apply to the signatory nations. Observers and vessel-monitoring systems will be used to track compliance, and vessels must stay at least five nautical miles from previously identified vulnerable areas or from areas where they encounter vulnerable ecosystems during fishing (such as by pulling up cold-water corals in their nets). The South Pacific region stretches from the Equator to Antarctica, and from Australia to South America.
The measures will remain in force until the formal establishment of a regional fisheries management organization (RFMO) for the South Pacific. Negotiations on establishing such an RFMO began last year in New Zealand, and are expected to continue for several years before conclusion. The bottom-trawl agreement emerged from a third round of negotiations, held in Chile 30 April – 4 May. Signatories to the bottom-trawling accord include Australia, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Cook Islands, Ecuador, the European Commission, Federated States of Micronesia, France, Japan, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Russia, South Korea, Ukraine, the United States, and Vanuatu.
Will “severely constrain” bottom trawling
New Zealand put forward the proposal that largely shaped the agreement, despite the fact its vessels account for 90% of bottom trawling in the region. The New Zealand delegation acknowledged the agreement will “severely constrain” its fishing industry. “Because of the cost implications of the necessary research and assessment and observer requirements, [the agreement] may have the effect of putting an end to bottom trawling,” said the delegation in a statement. Orange roughy is the main target fish on the South Pacific high seas, and its annual commercial value is estimated at roughly US $10 million.
Matthew Gianni, spokesperson for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (http://www.savethehighseas.org) says, “If the nation with the largest high-seas trawl fleet in the region can take this stance, there is no excuse for those with less at stake. By now going and putting into place effective regulations to implement this agreement, New Zealand can demonstrate real leadership in the protection of biodiversity on the high seas.”
The agreement is in line with a United Nations General Assembly resolution, passed in December 2006, that called for closure of areas of the high seas to bottom fishing where cold-water corals and other sensitive species are known or likely to occur. Text of that resolution (A/RES/61/105) is available athttp://www.un.org/Depts/los/general_assembly/general_assembly_resolutions.htm.
The South Pacific agreement, covering nearly one-quarter of the world’s high seas, is the latest and largest in a series of regional initiatives limiting bottom trawling in waters beyond national jurisdiction. In 2006, major fishing companies announced a voluntary halt to trawling in 11 deep-sea areas of the Indian Ocean (“Four companies to halt high-seas fishing in southern Indian Ocean”, MPA News 8:1). In 2005, the main intergovernmental fishery management body for the Mediterranean Sea declared significant portions of its region to be permanently off-limits to bottom trawling (“Bottom Trawling Prohibited Below 1000 Meters in Mediterranean”, MPA News 6:9).