Negotiations between the United States, Russia, Korea and Japan failed to establish measures to restore depleted fisheries and protect cold water corals and other vulnerable deep-sea species and ecosystems on the Emperor Seamounts in the Northwest Pacific Ocean at a crucial meeting earlier this month in Tokyo.
The talks sought to reach agreement on multilateral measures to implement a groundbreaking UN resolution adopted in 2006. That resolution (UNGA 61/105) called on countries to: 1) take action immediately to sustainably manage fish stocks; 2) conduct impact assessments to determine whether bottom fishing activities would cause significant adverse impacts to vulnerable marine ecosystems and the long term sustainability of deep sea fish stocks; and 3) cease bottom fisheries in high seas areas where vulnerable marine ecosystems are known to occur or are likely to occur by 31 December 2008 unless conservation and management measures have been established to prevent significant adverse impacts on such ecosystems.
Conservation organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, expressed dismay at the outcome. “The Northwest Pacific negotiations had been making important progress – indeed leading the way – toward meeting the requirements of UN General Assembly Resolution 61/105”, said Lisa Speer of NRDC, who attended the meeting. “It is therefore doubly disappointing that the countries involved failed to agree on any measures to protect known or likely ‘vulnerable marine ecosystems’, or to prevent unsustainable fishing on severely depleted fish stocks in the region.”
Particularly egregious was the failure of the countries to agree to a modest US proposal to close two seamounts in a high seas area near the US exclusive economic zone off of Hawaii needed to help restore depleted fish stocks, and small portions of two other seamounts, where vulnerable deep-sea species such as corals are known or likely to occur based on the best scientific information available.
“It is appalling that the countries involved could not agree to protect even one small vulnerable marine ecosystem on one seamount in the entire 10 million square kilometer area of the NW Pacific Ocean”, said Speer. “That biodiversity belongs to all nations, and if fishing nations can’t protect it, the rest of the world needs to step in.”
Speer predicted that the failure of the negotiations in the NW Pacific and other areas to adopt meaningful measures to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems and fish would lead to renewed calls for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling.
In addition to failing to protect any vulnerable ecosystems and failing to adopt measures sufficient to restore depleted fisheries, the meeting also failed to agree on meaningful rules to constrain existing fishing activities. They failed to adopt rules requiring fishing vessels to move on should they encounter coral or other vulnerable species, requirements for observer coverage or training, or a protocol to guide exploratory fisheries. Two of the four participating countries failed to provide required assessments of the impacts of bottom fishing on vulnerable marine ecosystems and fish, or any proposed measures to prevent or mitigate those impacts. Finally, the meeting failed to agree to apply interim measures to high seas bottom fisheries in the remainder of the North Pacific Ocean, which is known to contain seamounts, deep sea corals, and other types of vulnerable marine ecosystems.
The failure of the States meeting in Tokyo to reach agreement means that high seas fishing nations that have not assessed the impacts of bottom fishing or adopted measures to address such impacts must stop bottom fishing by December 31, 2008 – the deadline set by the UN General Assembly and agreed by Japan, South Korea, the Russian Federation and the US at an early meeting of the Northwest Pacific nations in Korea in 2007. Continuing to fish would be in clear violation of their commitments to sustainable fisheries and protection of deep sea biodiversity.
Seamounts in the North Pacific have been subject to bottom trawling by vessels from Japan, Korea and Russia fishing primarily for alfonsino and armourhead over the past several years, lending urgency to the adoption of effective measures to protect them. In addition, it appears that one or more Taiwanese vessels are actually bottom trawl ‘fishing’ for corals on seamounts in the NW Pacific, based on anecdotal evidence discussed at an earlier meeting of the NW Pacific countries in October 2008. If this is case, this is a highly destructive practice and one which would serve to seriously undermine any efforts to protect corals from the impact of bottom trawling for fish species. This also raises the question of whether Taiwanese vessels are trawling for deep-water corals in other high seas areas of the world. The DSCC has called on the four countries participating in the NW Pacific negotiations to send as strong a diplomatic protest to Taiwan and call on the government to prohibit its vessels from trawling for coral.