Science has played an important role in making the case for political commitments and tangible action to implementing management measures to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems in the deep sea from the damage caused by destructive fishing practices. In 2005, 1,452 scientists from 69 countries signed a statement calling on governments and the United Nations to adopt a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling.(1) The following year, a number of the world's leading deep ocean scientists toured around Europe to bring their concerns directly to decision makers. At the same time, scientists from the Australia, Canada and the UK sent letters to their governments calling for action.(2) Never before had such a number of scientists united around a specific marine environmental issue. The action marked a turning point in the mounting global campaign to halt deep-sea bottom trawling on the high seas.
Underlying the statements 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. As was shown by the Census of Marine Life - scientists now know that the deep sea is teeming with life, most of which still remains undiscovered. One of the driving forces behind the scientists' action was mounting concern that entire deep-sea ecosystems will be destroyed before they can be subject to scientific study. The Census showed, among other things, that today in the deep sea fisheries, and hydrocarbon and mineral extraction have the greatest impact, although that primary threat status is likely to shift to climate change in the future.
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. Scientists have expressed profound concern that "human activities, particularly bottom trawling, are causing unprecedented damage to the deep-sea coral and sponge communities on continental plateaus and slopes, and on seamounts and mid-ocean ridges." They continue to urge that the precautionary principle be used to ensure that the deep-sea environment is protected and "to avoid the very real threat of serious or irreversible damage to them by bottom trawling". (3)
More recently, in September 2010, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) launched a groundbreaking report, Deep-sea Sponge Grounds: Reservoirs of Biodiversity, highlighting deep-sea sponge science and conservation. Compiled by leading experts in the field, the report consolidates knowledge on the biology and ecology of deep-water sponge grounds, their value to society, and their associated policy frameworks. It is aimed at boosting the protection and sustainable management of these long-overlooked diverse and ancient habitats. The report also draws attention to how little is currently known and demonstrates the need to develop fuller knowledge and understanding of these habitats together with raising awareness as to why sponge grounds are important and the threats they face.
In the water HERMIONE (Hotspot Ecosystem Research and Man's Impact on European Seas) is a three year project launched in April 2009 to advance our knowledge of the functioning of deep-sea ecosystems and their contribution to the production of goods and services. Using an interdisciplinary approach, scientists are exploring the impacts of climate change, fishing, resource extraction, seabed installations and pollution on highly vulnerable deep-sea habitats. The findings will be used to design and implement effective governance strategies and management plans. Study sites include the Arctic, North Atlantic and Mediterranean and cover a range of ecosystems. A major aim of the project is to create a platform for discussion between a range of stakeholders, and contribute to EU environmental policies.
Clear message to policy makers and industry
In May 2011 a workshop in Lisbon brought together 22 scientists and fisheries experts from around the world to consider the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions on high seas bottom fisheries: what progress has been made and what the outstanding issues are. A report was produced - The Impact of Deep-Sea Fisheries and Implementation of the UNGA Resolutions 61/105 and 64/72 - summarizing the workshop conclusions. The report identifies examples of good practice and makes recommendations in areas where it was agreed that the current management measures fall short of their target.
Several of the report’s contributing scientists attended, and made presentations to, the UNGA meeting in September 2011 to review the implementation of resolutions 61/105 and 64/72. Read further on the outcomes of that meeting on our UN Processes page.
(1) The scientists' statement of concern was initially signed by 1,136 scientists and released in February 2004 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting and the Seventh Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Marine Conservation Biology Institute subsequently (MCBI) re-opened the scientists' statement for signature in 2005, in response to requests from scientists wishing to join the moratorium call.
Scientists' Statement on Protecting the World's Deep-sea Coral and Sponge Ecosystems
Full list of signatories
(2) Scientists' Letters to their governments (4 attached):
(3) Scientific and Political update 2006, DSCC (pdf)
Momentum in support of a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling continues to grow, January 2006, Addendum to Political Momentum is Building Rapidly (pdf)
Political Momentum Is Building Rapidly, April 2005 (pdf) English | French | German | Spanish
Visit the publications section of this site for links to further scientific reports.