Atlantic fisheries commission protects cold-water corals from trawling | WWF

Atlantic fisheries commission protects cold-water corals from trawling

Posted on 17 November 2004    
Gorgon's head (Gorgonocephalus caputmedusae) in the Selligrunnen, a protected cold-water coral reef in Norway.
© WWF / Erling Svensen
A regional fisheries management organization has for the first time taken action to ban bottom trawling in five vulnerable deep-sea areas in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean. 
The ban, which also applies to bottom-set gillnets and long-line fishing, was accepted at the annual meeting of the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), the regional body that regulates fishing in the high seas of the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. 
“The Commission’s decision, kicked off by a Norwegian government initiative, marks an important first step in protecting deep water habitats in the high seas from destruction by the trawling industry,” Stephan Lutter, WWF’s North-East Atlantic Ecoregion Programme Coordinator. 
“This decision sets a key precedent for high seas governance and represents a welcome change of heart in fisheries regulations. It also marks a shift from pure stock management towards an ecosystem approach and the commitment to halt deep-sea biodiversity loss.”
Scientists and conservationists worldwide have been raising the alarm in recent years about the impacts of high sea trawlers on the deep ocean habitats, in which between 500,000 and 100 million species are estimated to live.

Globally, the high seas bottom trawling industry represents only one-quarter of one percent of the global fish catch, yet bottom trawling can destroy a 10,000 year old coral reef in just one trawl.
“In light of the fact that as much as 40 per cent of the world’s fishing grounds are now in waters deeper than 200m, the decision is timely. But the area covered should only be a start,” Lutter added. 
The decision applies to four seamounts and one ridge section within the mid-Atlantic Ridge north west of Ireland. However, despite expert recommendations, two areas known to be at very high risk from deep-sea fisheries — the Hatton Bank and the western part of the Rockall Bank — dropped off the proposed list of sites, due to resistance from major fishing nations, such as Spain.
WWF has been actively lobbying the contracting Parties to the NEAFC Convention to ensure that fisheries in the high seas are managed responsibly through an ecosystem approach, and continues to lobby European Union members for protection of deep-sea fish stocks, cold-water corals, and seamount habitats.
The decision to ban trawling and other fishing in the five areas reflects national and regional commitments to protect vulnerable marine habitats. Norway passed its Coral Act in 1999 (amended in 2002), banning the trawling of major cold-water coral reefs in its waters. In 2003, the OSPAR Commission for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North East Atlantic set a deadline for the protection of cold-water corals after intense lobbying from WWF. And, in 2004, the EU finally took action to permanently protect the Darwin Mounds, a coral area off the coast of Scotland, and the ecologically-rich waters surrounding the Azores.
These measures have prompted international interest and attention on the plight of deep-sea corals, leading fisheries management organizations to consider adopting conservation measures to protect deep-sea habitats. 

“We hope that governments will continue on this positive path and create networks of marine protected areas throughout the world to protect these marine treasures,” Lutter said.

A coalition of nearly 30 NGOs, including WWF, is calling on the UN to endorse a temporary global moratorium on bottom-trawling on the high seas, until protection measures can be put in place to conserve deep sea corals and seamounts.
After two months of negotiations, the United Nations General Assembly last week called on member States to take urgent action and consider interim prohibitions and moratoria on bottom trawl fisheries on the high seas. As a result, a working group was established — which will convene for the first time in January 2006 — to look into long-term solutions to address the gaps in high seas oceans governance. 

Although Parties to the NEAFC meeting agreed to reduce fishing efforts on some deep-sea stocks, many are still fished at unsustainable levels. The lack of effective fisheries management in the high seas is in part due to failure to apply the precautionary approach, and limited knowledge on populations of commercial fish stocks and how much fishing takes place.
“The [NEAFC] ban is only temporary and will expire in three years’ time,” said Lutter.
“In the meantime, governments must address the current unsustainable fisheries situation on the high seas, and agree on regional and global frameworks that regulate the use of the rich marine resources in this vast area.”

• Cold-water coral reefs make an important contribution to the health of the seas by providing habitats for sea fans, sponges, worms, starfish, sea urchins, and crustaceans. The reefs are often associated with seamounts, which also serve as essential spawning and nursery grounds for several commercial fish species, including orange roughy, blue ling, and grenadiers.
• Deep-sea species are widely recognized as having biological characteristics that make them extremely vulnerable to intensive fishing pressure. They live a long time, mature late, and are slow growing. The orange roughy is a prime example of such a species — living for more than 150 years and only becoming sexually mature at around 25 years old. As a result they are potentially slow to recover from the effects of overexploitation. 
• WWF's high seas conservation strategy aims to reduce the threats of illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing and to develop means to better manage global tuna fishing fleets and reduce bycatch of marine species like dolphins, marine turtles, and sharks.  
For further information:
Jessica Battle
Global Marine Programme Communications Officer 
Tel: +41 22 364 9028
Stephan Lutter, Coordinator
WWF North-East Atlantic Programme Coordination Office
Tel: +49 421 658 4622 or +49 171 548 7312
Gorgon's head (Gorgonocephalus caputmedusae) in the Selligrunnen, a protected cold-water coral reef in Norway.
© WWF / Erling Svensen Enlarge

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