The ink had hardly dried on the strongest scientific evidence yet in support of a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling, not to mention another report that overfishing is set to seal the fate of fish dinners on Fridays – by 2048 there’ll be no fish and little other life left to mention in our oceans. Only weeks ago, Australia, the Pacific Island States and the USA came out in favour of a halt to the world’s most destructive and wasteful fishing practice, joining numerous governments, thousands of scientists and members of the public around the world.
How then, could one country scupper international attempts to curb a practice that common sense alone, never mind the precautionary principle enshrined in international law, declares entirely unconscionable? In the approach to and during negotiations at the United Nations in New York, where a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling was being discussed, a variety of protests took place around the world. An orange roughy haunted the sidewalk out front, reminding negotiators that in the absence of international action, most deep-sea fish are headed the same way – orange roughy is set to be the first commercially harvested fish to be added to Australia’s threatened species list, to protect it from over-fishing. A large banner read “Stop Deep Sea Destruction.” To the north, in Canada near Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, orange roughy also rose from the deep together with other deep-sea creatures, deep-sea squid and paragorgia corals to shame Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper for his country’s obstinate opposition to a halt on bottom trawling in international waters.
More deep sea creatures appeared asking for protection at Spanish Embassies in Paris, Berlin, Santiago, Stockholm, New York, and Washington D.C., in actions organised by Greenpeace. Virtual actions resulted in Canada and Spain together receiving over 71,000 emails from Greenpeace cyberactivists in the final week before the negotiations. High seas bottom trawling has been compared to clear-cutting rainforests. Scientists agree that there is an overwhelming case to ban it. And now even fishermen are coming out against the practice. Recent statements like this one from a Canadian fisherman clearly demonstrate the damage that is being done: “Just like a rake rakes up all the leaves on the grass, a dragger kills everything. They destroy habitat. They should never open the fisheries to draggers ever again.
My father saw the first dragger in Louisbourg and said that they shouldn’t call it a dragger they should call it a destroyer. People laughed then, but he was right.” (1) But a handful of fleets from mainly northern developed nations continue this fishing practice, dragging up everything in their path and ripping up the sea floor and fragile cold-water corals in the process. The European Union undertakes the largest effort with Spain operating the majority of the EU’s bottom trawling fleet. Yet finally it was not Spain, the EU, Canada, or countries like Russia and South Korea that have defended the practice, who finally sunk a deal that could have protected vulnerable high seas ecosystems and cold water corals. (Although only a couple of weeks ago, the European Community, Russia and South Korea put paid plans for interim protection measures in a vast area of the South Pacific.) The volcanic country that finally froze hours of lengthy negotiations, erupting at the eleventh hour and blocking concensus, was the tiny, cold, island of Iceland, with around 300,000 inhabitants.
High seas bottom trawling is practised by relatively few vessels – perhaps no more than 200 worldwide – and accounts for only about 0.2% of the total world catch. Although Iceland has a small bottom trawling fleet, the country’s economy relies heavily on fishing. However, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that eliminating government subsidies would render high seas bottom trawl fleets economically unviable. They concluded that removing such subsidies would relieve enormous pressure on over-fishing and vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems. Icelandic trawler Captain Hermann Haraldsson has worked on Icelandic fishing vessels for 40 years, including deep sea trawlers, and is now an outspoken advocate for the protection of deep sea habitats from deep sea bottom trawling. In an interview with Greenpeace, Haraldssen said that on seeing underwater footage of the destruction caused by his boat to the seabed: “I was shocked to see how this worked under water. This cannot be good for life in the ocean. Every creature, whether humans or animals needs to have some shelter. We cannot continue to destroy life such as corals.
The consequences will show one day. Anyone in his right mind will understand that.” (2) Where then were UN negotiators’ minds? It is to be hoped that they will heed Captain Haraldssen’s words, because if nations cannot agree to stop a practice so destructive and of ultimately minor economic importance, what hope can there be for the future of our planet, never mind our oceans? Many are today asking how governments failed to stand up to one nation. Any system that allows a single country to block action that is supported by the majority and beneficial to all, is fundamentally flawed. Do governments really think that we and future generations will not pay a far higher price for the wholesale destruction of ocean ecosystems? And Iceland would do well to ask itself on what its economy will rely if, in 40 years time, the last fish has been fished.
Notes: (1) Anonymous Canadian fisherman. Excerpted from Fuller, Gass and Myers, 2007, Using Local Ecological Knowledge to Determine Biogeography of Structural Species in the Northwest Atlantic: Implications for Science and Conservation. (Currently in preparation). See DSCC home page for more quotes. (2) Watch video of Greenpeace interview of Icelandic fisherman Trawler Captain Hermann Haraldssen (scroll down page).