Science and Research
Although film director James Cameron’s 2012 dive to the deepest part of the ocean – the Mariana Trench – made headlines, human-occupied vehicles began to take scientists to the deep seabed as early as the 1960s. Each decade since then has led to increased access to the deep ocean using technologically advanced robotics for exploration and scientific research. Science has played an important role in making the case for political commitment to, and tangible action towards, implementing measures to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems in the deep sea from the damage caused by destructive fishing practices and, increasingly, other human activities such as deep seabed mining.
In 2004, more than one thousand scientists from 69 countries signed a statement calling on governments and the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to adopt a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. In 2006, a number of the world’s leading deep-ocean scientists toured Europe to bring their concerns directly to decision makers. At the same time, scientists from Australia, Canada and the UK sent letters to their governments calling for action. These acts marked a turning point in the mounting global campaign to halt deep-sea bottom trawling on the high seas and since then numerous scientists have continued to call for action to halt the destructive impact of this form of fishing.
Underlying the scientists’ statement is a still-emerging body of science. Even today scientists are only just beginning to understand the diversity, significance and vulnerability of deep-sea biodiversity and ecosystems. Due in part to the Census of Marine Life (2010) and the World Ocean Assessment (2015), scientists now know that the deep sea is teeming with life, though most it remains undiscovered. One of the driving forces behind the scientists’ action in 2004 was mounting concern that entire deep-sea ecosystems will be destroyed before they can be subject to scientific study.
In the context of the fishing industry, where advances in bottom trawl technology mean that it is now possible to fish the deep sea’s rugged floors, scientists have expressed profound concern that “deep-sea bottom trawling has significantly damaged deep-sea ecosystems, including coral reefs, sponge gardens and seamounts, and caused serious declines in deep-sea fish populations”. They continue to urge that the precautionary principle be used to ensure that the deep-sea environment is protected.1
The DSCC continues to work with scientists at the science-policy interface. In order to send a clear message to policy makers and the industry and urge them to take action to ensure the protection of the deep-sea environment, science and research are key. There have been a number of more recent initiatives from deep-sea scientists to provide scientific advice and information about the regulation of activities in the deep sea. Among these are the:
- EU-funded Hotspot Ecosystem Research and Man’s Impact on European Seas (HERMIONE) project
- International network for scientific investigation of deep-sea ecosystems (INDEEP)
- Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI)
- Managing Impacts of Deep-seA reSource exploitation (MIDAS) project
- Atlas Project
Since 2004, protecting biodiversity in the deep sea in areas beyond national jurisdiction – the high seas – has been extensively debated by the UNGA and in other international fora. The UNGA adopted a series of resolutions, beginning with UN Resolution 59/25 in 2004, which called on high seas fishing nations and regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) to take urgent action to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) from destructive fishing practices, including bottom trawl fishing, in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
A report from the UN Secretary General in 2006, on progress on the implementation of the 2004 resolution, concluded that little action had been taken to protect deep-sea ecosystems on the high seas from the adverse impacts of bottom fisheries. As a result of a review by the UNGA in 2006, and calls by a number of countries including Brazil, Palau and other Pacific Island countries, the UNGA adopted a “compromise” offered by nations whose vessels deep-sea fish on the high seas through UNGA Resolution 61/105, adopted by consensus in December 2006. Resolution 61/105 committed nations that authorize their vessels to engage in bottom fisheries on the high seas to take a series of actions, outlined in paragraph 83 of the resolution.
Again in 2009, the UNGA determined that Resolution 61/105 had not been implemented sufficiently. As a result, the UNGA adopted additional provisions in Resolution 64/72. This resolution reaffirmed the 2006 resolution and made it clear that the measures called for in Resolution 61/105 should be implemented, consistent with the FAO guidelines, by flag States and RFMOs prior to allowing, or authorizing, bottom fishing on the high seas to proceed.
Resolution 64/72 placed emphasis on conducting impact assessments of bottom fisheries on the high seas and called on States and RFMOs to “ensure that vessels do not engage in bottom fishing until such assessments have been carried out”. Resolution 64/72 further called for stock assessments and conservation measures to ensure the long-term sustainability of deep-sea fish stocks, including species impacted by deep-sea fishing that are not of commercial value (so-called non-target or bycatch species), and the rebuilding of depleted fish stocks.
Based on direct experience gained through years of participating in UN negotiations and a review of various actions taken, the DSCC released a report in September 2011 to coincide with the 15–16 September workshop to review implementation of the UNGA Resolutions 61/105 and 64/72. Based on this review, the DSCC concluded that high seas fishing States are, with few exceptions, failing to live up to the provisions of UNGA Resolutions 61/105 and 64/72.
The 2011 UNGA negotiations concluded in December that year with the adoption of a new resolution, Resolution 66/68 on Oceans and Sustainable Fisheries, calling on high seas fishing nations to take stronger actions to protect deep-sea life.
Welcomed by the DSCC, Resolution 66/68 reinforces the conclusions of the Coalition’s September 2011 report, which concludes that “urgent actions called for in the relevant paragraphs of [previously adopted United Nations General Assembly resolutions] 61/105 and 64/72 have not been fully implemented” with respect to the regulation of deep-sea fisheries on the high seas, and “emphasizes the need for full implementation by all states and relevant regional fisheries management organizations and arrangements of their commitments under those paragraphs on an urgent basis” to protect deep-sea ecosystems and species.
The resolution further calls for strengthening procedures for conducting environmental impact assessments of high seas bottom fisheries and calls on States to publicize “without delay” the assessments and to improve compliance with deep-sea fisheries regulations. The UNGA agreed to hold another review of the implementation of the resolutions in 2016.
In August 2016, the DSCC published its third review report of State and RFMOs’ efforts to implement the UNGA resolutions. The DSCC report provided a comprehensive review of the extent to which high seas bottom fishing nations and RFMOs have adopted and implemented the measures called for in UNGA resolutions 61/105, 64/72 and 66/68. It focuses specifically on the actions taken by States and RFMOs to conduct impact assessments, identify areas where VMEs are known or likely to occur, and establish measures to protect VMEs and ensure the long-term sustainability of deep-sea fish stocks. The report contains a set of 10 recommendations that are designed to address specific shortcomings in one or more RFMOs.
In December 2016, a new UNGA resolution was adopted reaffirming previous commitments. Resolution 71/123 calls on States to address the shortcomings identified and to take a series of additional actions to protect deep-sea species and ecosystems, and to sustainably manage deep-sea fisheries. The resolution further calls on other international regulatory bodies, where relevant, to protect vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems. A decision was taken to maintain oversight of the implementation of the resolutions via the conduct of another review in 2020, despite opposition from some countries and the international deep-water trawl industry.
It is critical that the UNGA continues this level of oversight regarding deep-sea life. Importantly, the 2016 resolution calls for impact assessments to be made public. These are important tools to ensure transparency, accountability, and compliance with the UNGA requirements by RFMOs.2
Through the years, the DSCC has called for additional measures to strengthen the EU’s deep-sea fisheries regulation. An intensive campaign was waged by the DSCC and partners from 2012–2016, leading to the adoption of a new EU regulation for the management of deep-sea fisheries in EU waters in December 2016. This new regulation entered into force in January 2017, the culmination of four and a half years of campaigning, negotiations and consultation with member states, Parliament, Council and the Commission.
The measures adopted in the 2016 regulation represent a major improvement over the deep-sea fisheries regulation in force since 2002. They will go a long way towards meeting the commitments made by the EU at the UNGA and applying them to protect deep-sea ecosystems in EU waters, provided that the regulation is implemented effectively. To learn more about the milestones in the walk towards this new EU legislation, please visit the section EU past campaign.
In the water
Each of the resolutions adopted by the UNGA in 2004, 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2016 has been progressively stronger than the last. As a result of the DSCC’s work and in response to the debate and resolutions adopted by the UNGA, significant changes have already occurred on the water. Tangible results achieved include:
- Three new agreements establishing RFMOs to manage high seas bottom fisheries in the North Pacific, South Pacific and Southern Indian Ocean have been negotiated and entered into force.
- The North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) and the South East Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (SEAFO) have closed substantial areas of the high seas at fishable depths to bottom fishing, including a number of areas where VMEs are likely to occur.
- Bottom trawling has been prohibited by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) on the high seas in the Southern Ocean. The General Fisheries Commission of the Mediterranean (GFCM) has prohibited bottom trawling below 1,000 meters.
- Several RFMOs have established bans on the use of bottom gillnets in their regulatory areas.
- Most RFMOs and States involved in regional negotiation processes to establish new RFMOs to manage bottom fisheries in the high seas have adopted binding regulations or multilateral “interim measures” to manage bottom fisheries that are largely consistent with UNGA resolutions.
- Transparency in the work of the RFMOs managing bottom fisheries in the high seas has improved considerably over the past decade.
There actions are positive steps forward, and many will serve to protect some species and deep-sea ecosystems in some areas. However, the set of actions called for by the UNGA are far from fully implemented. Shortcomings include inadequate assessments and a lack of cumulative assessments, VME areas that remain open to bottom fishing, a lack of information on status of stocks, unregulated catch in deep-sea fisheries, insufficient move-on rules and the widespread use of bottom trawling, are some examples.
The DSCC has conducted three in-depth reviews of the actions taken by States and RFMOs to implement the UNGA resolutions. Our last review was published on August 2016 and you can find it in the publications page or through this direct link.