IUCN, the World Conservation Union, has called on the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 to place an interim ban on bottom trawling on the high seas until a legally binding management regime is established to conserve deep-sea biodiversity from the impacts of such fishing activity. Furthermore, IUCN recommends that the UN call in 2006 for a similar interim ban in areas covered by regional fisheries management organizations, again until protective management measures are in place.

The IUCN recommendations, made at the World Conservation Congress in Bangkok (Thailand) in November, carry the force of the organization’s full membership, consisting of 81 states, 114 government agencies, and 800+ NGOs worldwide. (At the World Parks Congress in 2003, marine theme participants called on the UN to consider a moratorium on trawling of certain high-seas areas – seamounts and deep-sea coral reefs – but it reflected the views of only these participants, a subset of the entire IUCN [MPA News 5:4].)

Although not specified in the trawling-ban recommendations, the eventual management regimes would likely include no-take zones around some of the most vulnerable and still largely unexplored habitats – like seamounts and deep-sea coral communities. “There are vast gaps in knowledge about the biodiversity of the high seas and deep oceans,” says Graeme Kelleher, chairman of the High Seas MPA Task Force for the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA). “We must act now to safeguard vital areas and species through high-seas marine protected areas and eliminate destructive fishing practices, or we will lose them.”

Bottom trawl fishing is unregulated in extensive areas of the high seas – waters beyond national jurisdiction – and few regional fisheries management bodies have used their jurisdiction to control such fishing to protect sensitive habitats. An exception is the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, which agreed in November to close five seamounts and part of the Reykjanes Ridge (near Iceland) to fishing to protect vulnerable habitats (http://www.neafc.org/news/docs/2004press_release_final.pdf).

Seamounts are among the deep-sea habitats most vulnerable to exploitation. Worldwide there are estimated to be tens of thousands of these undersea mountains, but most have never been mapped, much less explored. Nonetheless, the known ones have become targets for the orange roughy fishery. Heavy exploitation can rapidly deplete a seamount’s stock of this valuable but slow-to-reproduce species while also destroying any deep-sea coral and sponge communities present.

Precautionary approach

The UN General Assembly made progress toward an interim ban in November 2004 by calling on states and regional fisheries management organizations to take urgent action to protect vulnerable deep-sea habitats. Notably, it called on them to consider implementing interim bans on a case-by-case basis – that is, protecting one vulnerable area at a time after it has been located and explored by scientists. The UN also established a working group to discuss high-seas conservation and sustainable use, scheduled to meet in February 2006.

Kristina Gjerde, high seas policy advisor to the IUCN Global Marine Programme and coordinator of the WCPA High Seas MPA Task Force, says these UN activities indicate a window of opportunity to work toward achieving an effective high-seas governance system. She adds, though, that any attempts to adopt a case-by-case approach to high-seas conservation should be avoided for the risk involved: the sites could be fished out between their time of discovery and establishment of protection. “The IUCN recommendation of an interim ban on all high-seas bottom trawling reflects a more pragmatic and precautionary approach, as we still do not know where all the seamounts and cold-water corals are located,” she says.

At the World Conservation Congress, IUCN members also recommended the establishment of representative networks of MPAs on the high seas, and that these networks contribute to a global representative network of MPAs by 2012. The WCPA High Seas MPA Task Force launched a website in November to report on its efforts, at http://www.highseasconservation.org.

For more information:
Graeme Kelleher, 12 Marulda Street, Arenda, Canberra ACT 2614, Australia. Tel: +61 2625 11402; E-mail: graemek@gbrmpa.gov.au

Kristina Gjerde, ul. Piaskowa 12c, 05-510 Konstancin-Chylice, Poland. Tel: +48 22 754 1803, E-mail: kgjerde@it.com.pl