Deep-sea trawlers from mainland Europe are destroying diverse and fragile coral gardens off the northwest coast of the UK in an industry that is only possible thanks to EU subsidies, a new report has highlighted.
Some of Britain’s most extraordinary landscapes are to be found a kilometre below the surface on the Rockall and Hatton banks, and the Porcupine seabight, yet they are disappearing as trawlers from Spain and France engage in an unprofitable race to catch meagre quantities of fish.
The Darwin Mounds —– a large area of deepwater coral communities in the Rockall Trough — were discovered in 1998. The intricate and fragile web of corals, sponges, and starfish were put under emergency protection from trawlers in 2004, but when scientists on the research vessel James Clark Ross visited earlier this year they found no signs of recovery on the damaged reefs.
“There’s very little coral left at the Darwin Mounds,” Phil Weaver from the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton said. “But the problem is also the communities that coral supported. Many hundreds — if not thousands — of species lived within that coral.”
Life at such depths develops slowly, and deepwater corals are some of the planet’s most ancient living structures — some are thought to have been growing for more than 8,500 years. The fish living in the perpetual darkness can reach 150 years old and mature late, making a sustainable harvest difficult.
Very few UK-registered vessels are engaged in deep-sea bottom trawling, and the deep waters northwest of the UK are principally fished by Spanish and French ships. Their fleets began seeking fish in deeper water in the 1990s as catches in coastal waters began to fall, and the Northeast Atlantic is now the most heavily trawled region of the high seas. Spain has the biggest deepwater fleet in the world with 107 ships, and takes 38 per cent of the EU’s deepwater catch. France takes 31 per cent.
Trawling the deep is expensive. Travelling so far out to sea and dragging nets across the seabed through deep water requires powerful engines. A 2006 study found that Spain’s deepwater bottom-trawling fleet consumed 70 million litres a year.
According to a report by the conservation group Oceana almost half a kilo of diesel is burnt for every kilo of haddock or whiting caught by deep-sea vessels.
Modernising ships — and in some cases scrapping them soon after — win handouts from the EU. In 2009 EU fleets received €3.3 billion in direct and indirect subsidy, and Spain (which has the EU’s largest fleet) received €1 billion in the current subsidy round (2007-13). At least one study has found that without such funding, most bottom-trawling fleets would operate at a loss.
Critics of Europe’s support for deep-sea bottom trawling point out that for the EU as a whole, deep-sea fishing accounts for just 1.5 per cent of seafood landings by volume, and only a quarter of a percent by value. A 2006 worldwide analysis found that the catch from deep sea trawlers was 250,000 tonnes a year, just 0.31 per cent of the global marine harvest. The sector also employs very few fishermen — in Spain less than 6 per cent of those at sea.
A third to two thirds of what is pulled up from the deep is unmarketable and is thrown back overboard, dead or dying, according to the EC.
“It’s an absurd situation. These boats wouldn’t be going out if taxpayers weren’t paying for them. They’re causing massive damage to fragile environments that scientists don’t yet understand, and the amount of fish that’s brought back is insignificant in terms of food security,” said Alicia Craw, an ocean campaigner for Greenpeace, which has released a new report calling for an end to deep-sea trawling.
Another recent investigation by the organisation exposed a single fishing magnate whose companies received subsidies of over £13 million despite convictions for numerous illegal fishing offences. The EU fisheries commissioner has called such activity a form of organised crime, and has promised to investigate.
Ivan López, general manager of Pesquera Ancora which has two deep-sea trawlers, called the allegations “exaggerated.” “With respect to Greenpeace, they are making generalised claims which are not accurate. Other scientific bodies do not support them. Spain has also pioneered research into potential damage to the sea bed by ishing,” he said.
José Antonio González Martín, deputy director general of the Spanish fishing inspectorate, told The Times: “We have not allowed our fleets to damage important areas of the seas.”
Reform of Europe’s Common Fisheries Policy is underway, but Spain and France are understood to be resisting the radical changes widely seen as necessary. Three quarters of European stocks are overfished.
Source: The Times, Frank Pope Ocean Correspondent