A science tour event organized by the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) together with Iceland Nature Conservation Association, and attended by key people from Iceland’s government, has initiated a debate in Iceland over the country’s opposition to an interim suspension on high seas bottom trawling (1). Dr. Monica Verbeek, the DSCC’s European Coordinator and Dr. Alex Rogers of the British Antarctic Survey, one of the world’s leading seamount experts, presented the arguments for protecting the biodiversity of the high seas to representatives from Iceland’s Foreign, Fisheries and Environment Ministries, scientists from Iceland’s Marine Research Institute and non-governmental organisations.
Iceland is one of 11 nations that together conduct the lion’s share of bottom trawling activity in the high seas (2) and has traditionally opposed a temporary halt to high seas bottom trawl fishing. At the DSCC event and in a newsletter issued the next day (3), Iceland’s Fisheries Ministry stated that “The proposal [put forward at the 2004 UN GA for a temporary prohibition or interim suspension on high seas bottom trawling] demonstrates an undesirable tendency towards global interference in fisheries management around the world.” But political momentum is rapidly growing for a temporary halt to high seas bottom trawling, until legally-binding regimes for the effective conservation and management of fisheries and the protection of biodiversity on the high seas can be developed, implemented and enforced by the global community. Many countries support such a measure, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany, Costa Rica, Palau and Brazil (4). Iceland, however, believes fisheries should not be regulated on a global scale by the UN, but at a regional level through Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs). When asked why the DSCC is calling for a moratorium at the UN level rather than at a regional level, Dr. Verbeek explained that the majority of the world’s oceans are not covered by RFMOs with the legal competence to regulate deep sea fisheries. The only body that currently can regulate bottom trawling in those areas is the UN. “It will take at least a decade or more to ensure full coverage of all oceans by regional fisheries bodies,” Verbeek said. “Given the current geographic expansion of high seas bottom trawling and its devastating effects on high seas biodiversity, we simply cannot afford to wait that long. Moreover, Iceland is a Party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which recognizes that the loss of biodiversity and unsustainable use of resources is a matter of common global concern.” Icelandic radio subsequently broadcast an interview with Dr. Verbeek on the evening of the meeting. In a follow-up interview with Ms. Gudrun Eyjolfsdottir from Iceland’s Fisheries Ministry and Mr. Sigurdur A. Thrainsson from the Environment Ministry, Ms Eyjolfsdottir explained that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) and related agreements such as the UN Fish Stocks Agreement (FSA) form the main pillar of Icleand’s policy on oceans issues. UNCLOS has evolved to regulate fishing primarily within exclusive economic zones (EEZs) which generally extend 200 nautical miles from the shorelines and the FSA places a great deal of reliance on the implementation of its provisions through RFMOs. However, both UNCLOS and the FSA include numerous obligations on States to protect and preserve rare or fragile ecosystems, the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species and other forms of marine life (UNCLOS) and to protect biodiversity in the marine environment (FSA). (5) “It’s not just about managing fish stocks”, said Dr. Verbeek. “It’s about protecting marine biodiversity as a whole.” Deep sea bottom trawling in international waters is not only depleting fish stocks, it is laying waste to deep sea habitats such as coral reefs that may be thousands of years old, along with species that have yet to be discovered. “Iceland may currently be fishing only within RFMOs, but it should also be concerned about protecting marine biodiversity in unregulated areas of the high seas.” As reiterated in the Convention on Biological Diversity, international law requires States to cooperate for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. It includes clear obligations on States to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, including seamounts beyond the continental shelf – underwater mountains around which marine life concentrates that are often targeted by deep sea trawlers. (5) In spite of these agreements, the recent expansion of fishing effort to the deep sea has highlighted gaps in the international legal regime that fail adequately to protect marine biodiversity as a whole, due to the focus primarily on target fisheries. Where bottom trawling takes place outside EEZs on the high seas, international regulation is vague, international governance is minimal or non-existent, and reporting is patchy. When asked why Iceland is keen on having global measures against pollution, but opposes such measures with regard to high seas bottom trawling, Ms. Eyjolfsdottir replied, “This is very simple, there are no global fish stocks.” “But there is a global fishing industry. When scientists estimate that most deep sea fish stocks on the high seas caught today will be commercially extinct in 20 years, it is in the interests of Iceland’s fishing industry to agree to an interim suspension on bottom trawling on the high seas,” said Dr. Verbeek. “Furthermore, the absence of urgent measures to regulate deep sea bottom trawling in the high seas, will mean huge losses to marine biodiversity.”
Notes (1) This was the latest event in a series of speaking events which have brought together the world’s foremost deep sea and seamount scientists with politicians across Europe. (2) Virtually all reported bottom trawling activity on the high seas is being conducted by 11 of the world’s wealthier nations: Denmark/Faroe Islands, Estonia, Iceland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, New Zealand, Portugal, Russia and Spain. The European Union in particular is the epicenter of deep sea bottom trawling. In 2001, EU nations (including the newly admitted Baltic states) took approximately 60 per cent of the reported high seas bottom trawl catch. Gianni, M. High Seas Bottom Trawl Fisheries and their impacts on the Biodiversity of Vulnerable Deep-sea Ecosystems: Options for International Action, executive summary (pdf), Full report (pdf). (3) English translation of extract from the newsletter issued by Iceland’s Ministry of Fisheries, 4 October 2005, (pdf). (4) For a full summary of the governments calling for the protection of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction from destructive fishing practices during the formal debate at the UNGA in 2004, see P. 3 of A Moratorium on Deep Sea Bottom Trawling in the High Seas: Political Momentum is Building Rapidly, DSCC policy paper, available in English /French / German / Spanish (5) Protecting the Deep Sea Under International Law: Legal Options for Addressing High Seas Bottom Trawling, Duncan E.J. Currie. Executive summary (pdf)