On 12 August, the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries published a press release “Spain, First Major Fishing Power to Support regulation on Bottom Trawling”, (in Spanish, “España primera potencia pesquera que respalda la regulación del arrastre de fondo”).
Just as Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) members were getting ready to pop the champagne corks, we took a closer look. Paragraph 8 of the release said: “The General Secretariat for Fisheries has adopted a precautionary position in accordance with which it is established that in those areas in international waters where there are no RFMOs [regional fisheries management organisations], fishing with bottom trawls will be allowed only if a scientific report determines the absence of a vulnerable ecosystem” (emphasis added). The statement also said: “Where an RFMO exists, Spain will support regulations establishing specific conditions for fishing activities, in particular bottom trawling, to ensure that they that respect marine ecosystems.” Curious as to what these qualifications meant in practice, the DSCC sought clarification from the Spanish government. DSCC Political Advisor Rémi Parmentier spoke several times with Spanish officials, and met with the Director General for Fisheries, Fernando Curcio. Following the meeting, Parmentier wrote down his understanding of what Curcio and his officials had explained. This paper was reviewed and corrected by the Ministry, and can thus be considered as a true representation of the Spanish position. The paper reads: “The precautionary position is expressed in Paragraph 8 of the statement: in high sea new areas where there are no RFMOs, bottom trawling by Spanish vessels will be allowed only where scientific studies have demonstrated the non-existence of any vulnerable marine ecosystem. You explained during our meeting that due to Intellectual Property restrictions, these studies will not be released publicly. This suspension of trawling will only affect new areas, whereby Spanish vessels will not be allowed on seamounts, hydrothermal vents and cold water corals anywhere in the high seas. Bottom trawling on the Patagonian shelf will continue to be permitted according to the more than 20 years existing scientific reports that prove that these fisheries are not carried out on vulnerable ecosystems. In the event that vulnerable ecosystems had been located in this fishing area, they would now be gone due to past trawling. [emphasis added] With regard to areas where there are Regional Fisheries Agreements (RFMOs), such as NAFO and NEAFC, Spain is undertaking a programme of scientific research to identify vulnerable areas in these regions. These studies will remain the intellectual property of the organisations under whose auspices they are being conducted; hence they won’t be released publicly. However, the Secretariat for Fisheries will organise verbal presentations of the findings, to NGOs and Industry representatives. The Spanish Government has no objection to NGO representatives joining the Spanish delegation at RFMOs as observers only, as industry representatives not integrated in any accredited international association have done in the past”. What does this mean? Is this good or bad news? The good newsThere is an admission that bottom trawling is inherently destructive to vulnerable seabed ecosystems such as seamounts and deep-sea coral reefs, and that trawling on sensitive ecosystems will most certainly wipe them out. As one of the world’s foremost bottom trawling nations – at least where the high seas are concerned – they should know. Hopefully this will send a signal to other countries such as Canada which argue that no fishing method is inherently destructive. (In his 2004 statement to the United Nations General Assembly last year, Geoff Regan, Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans Minister said: “Canada’s position is that no specific gear type is inherently destructive. From experience, we know that all gear types can have negative impacts, depending on how they’re used.”) As a result of this statement, at a minimum the Spanish government should now agree to a UN General Assembly resolution calling for an immediate stop to high seas bottom trawling on vulnerable ecosystems, including seamounts, hydrothermal vents and cold water corals. And since we know that these types of ecosystems are found throughout high seas areas at depths where bottom trawlers operate but we don’t know precisely where each and every deep-water coral reef is, logic dictates that we should stop trawling in all high seas areas until we can be sure that the trawlers are not destroying these ecosystems. It is also good news that the Spanish administration admits the participation of the fishing industry in Spanish delegations to RFMO meetings, and that they are now prepared to grant reciprocal rights to NGOs which are looking out for the interests of deep sea biodiversity which, after all, belongs to all of us. Finally, it is also good that the Spanish propose a reverse burden of proof: that trawling should not be allowed until it is proven safe. The language in last year’s UNGA resolution, which reflects the EU position, which in turn was driven to some extent by Spanish interests, currently calls for protection on a case by case basis. This has been interpreted by a number of fishing nations to mean that trawling can proceed until scientists can prove that it is causing damaging. Given that the trawlers always beat the scientists in the race to find productive ecosystems, and applying the logic of the new Spanish position, the EU’s case by case approach would spell doom for deep sea ecosystems. The bad news Spain appears to want to restrict the reversal of the burden of proof only to so-called new high seas areas, and only where there are no RFMOs. The question of how one would define ‘new’ areas is left unanswered. The assumption that there are no vulnerable ecosystems on the Patagonian shelf anywhere needs to be tested. The Greenpeace expedition to the Tasman Sea in June this year, to an area where trawling is already occurring, showed conclusively that new damage is being inflicted. . The restriction of publication of scientific data due to intellectual property restrictions is also not helpful. This “you’ll just have to trust us” attitude is akin to the fox guarding the chicken coop. Moreover who is paying for these studies? If by some chance industry is paying for them, this “trust us” attitude is even more suspect. But if – as is more likely the case – studies are funded with tax-payers’ money, we would respectfully suggest that the public has a right to see the results. Quite apart from all that, credible scientific studies are always subject to peer-review by third parties.The way forward Spanish NGOs are now asking the Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to use some common sense. The first test-case of the Spanish administration’s good faith will be reflected in the EU position at the UN General Assembly negotiations on its Sustainable Fisheries resolution, due to begin in New York today, 5 October. Spain is the strongest driver of fisheries policy within the EU. If the EU position continues to advocate its previous ‘case by case’ approach, with its burden of proof placed on environmentalists and nature rather than the fishing industry, this could mean that Spain is not ready to put its money where its mouth is. We’ll have the answer in just a few days’ time.