The ocean depths were once considered only the setting for seawrecks, monster squid and the primordial ooze, but over the past several decades scientists have discovered a previously unknown wealth of biodiversity. The dark depths of our oceans are home to cold-water corals, sponge fields, seamounts, hydrothermal vents and a multitude of other ecosystems that shelter strange and mysterious creatures found nowhere else on Earth. But this extraordinarily rich and fragile deep sea life is under threat from a range of fishing practices, and in particular the most destructive among them: deep-sea bottom trawling.
Today, deep-sea fleets (in particular bottom trawl fishing boats) can reach submerged mountains called seamounts, bulldozing their way across the ocean floor and destroying all life in their path as deep as 2000 metres. Species may become extinct before scientists even have a chance to identify them.
Over 70 organisations worldwide are working together under the umbrella of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) to protect cold-water corals and vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems. Together with the scientific community, we are calling for States to honour their commitments made at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA)to protect deep-sea species and ecosystems on the high seas from the harmful impacts of fishing. This reprieve would provide immediate protection to the mostly undiscovered biodiversity of the deep seas while legally-binding conservation and management regimes can be developed — before it is too late.
The deep sea1 is one of the last frontiers on the planet — home to breathtaking landscapes of mountains, hills, ridges and troughs that very few of us will ever see. Until approximately 30 years ago, it was assumed that there was little life in the cold and dark waters of the deep sea, which covers more than half the world's surface. The advent of manned and unmanned submersible technology, however, has turned that belief on its head. The world deep beneath the oceans' surface is far more diverse than was ever imagined.
Today, scientists and the fishing industry know that the deep sea is teeming with life, most of which remains undiscovered. Indeed, scientists have speculated that as many as 10 million species may inhabit the deep sea: biodiversity comparable to the world's richest tropical rainforests. They are slowly discovering ecosystems which are extraordinary in nature, often hosting species found nowhere else on the planet.
For the fishing industry also, the unreachable is now within reach. Advances in bottom trawl technology means that it is now possible to fish the deep sea's rugged floors and canyons. More powerful engines, bigger nets, more precise mapping, and advanced navigational and fish-finding electronics have enabled fishing vessels to drag fishing gear across the ocean bottom as much as two kilometers (1.2 miles) deep. As a result, well-capitalized fleets from a handful of wealthier nations2 are today destroying some of the planet's last, most ecologically-rich frontiers, in search of a few commercial fish and crustacean species.
In a relatively short period of time, the DSCC has prompted high seas fishing nations, through the UNGA, to agree to a global commitment to protect the deep sea in areas beyond national jurisdiction from the harmful impacts of deep-sea fishing. It has done so by putting the issue of high seas conservation and the destruction caused to deep-sea ecosystems by bottom fishing at the top of the global oceans and fisheries agenda.
As a result of these efforts, 2011 is a critical year. The UNGA, for the first time ever, will conduct an open review of regional and national actions to protect deep-sea species and ecosystems on the high seas from the harmful impacts of fishing. The review will specifically assess the extent to which UNGA resolutions adopted over the past seven years have been implemented by high seas fishing nations and regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs).
1The deep sea starts beyond the shallower continental shelf and includes the slope and rise of the continental margin, deep-ocean basins and plains, trenches, midocean ridge systems, smaller ridge systems, seamounts, plateaus and other underwater features rising from the deep ocean floor. This area constitutes over 90 percent of the ocean bottom and mostly lies beyond 200 nautical miles from shore.
2Virtually all bottom trawling activity in the high seas is being conducted by 11 of the world's wealthier nations: Denmark/Faroe Islands, Estonia, Iceland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Russia and Spain. The European Union (EU), in particular, is the epicenter of deep sea bottom trawling. In 2001, EU countries took approximately 60 percent of the high seas bottom trawl catch. The same year, Spain accounted for approximately two-thirds of the reported EU catch and 40 percent of the reported global catch in high seas bottom trawl fisheries.