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29 September, 2022

By Karli Thomas, Deep Sea Conservation Coalition Aotearoa

New Zealand is the only country still bottom trawling in the South Pacific, and last season just a single vessel was trawling in international waters, catching 20 tonnes of orange roughy. Meanwhile, a prosecution got underway yesterday of a New Zealand vessel that destroyed deep sea coral in the South Pacific in 2020.  

New Zealand’s bottom trawling activities have been reported by the government in its annual report  submitted to the Scientific Committee of the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO), which is meeting this week.

New Zealand has become increasingly isolated in this destructive bottom trawl fishery – since 2019 it has been the only country still bottom trawling in the South Pacific. The New Zealand fleet targets much of its trawling on seamounts and features, including biodiversity hotspots like the Louisville Ridge and the Lord Howe Rise.

Last year New Zealand issued permits to six trawl vessels owned by three companies, all with recent convictions for illegal trawling in closed areas. However, New Zealand’s latest annual report, covering the 2021 fishing season, shows that only one of those vessels fished in the high seas, catching some 20 tonnes of orange roughy.

The damage to deep sea ecosystems, and New Zealand’s international reputation, far outweighs these 20 tonnes of fish. In every year since 2019, New Zealand has had to report to SPRFMO illegal fishing or ecosystem destruction by its vessels, or had to update on painfully slow prosecutions for New Zealand vessels not following the international rules.

This week, as the SPRFMO Scientific Committee meets in South Korea, the latest prosecution gets underway in Nelson District Court. This time it’s Westfleet, a Sealord joint venture fishing company. The case centres on an incident in which a Westfleet bottom trawler damaged or destroyed a deep-sea coral ecosystem in the international waters of the Tasman Sea in 2020.

New Zealand reported the incident to the Committee  last year, but although it admitted the destructive trawl likely led to the complete loss of the deep sea ecosystem that the net dragged through, it argued that vessels should be allowed into the area again to keep trawling. This is the opposite of the precautionary approach that New Zealand has committed to following, in our own waters and in the South Pacific.

The identity of the vessel and company responsible for this recent coral destruction only became public this week as the court case got underway – the government has kept these details under wraps for almost two years.

All three companies that were issued permits last year have recent convictions for illegal trawling: Sealord was convicted in 2020 after its ship Ocean Dawn trawled five times through a closed area, dragging up 1,300 kilograms of deep-sea bycatch along with the 40 tonne fish catch. 

Last year, Sanford was convicted for multiple illegal trawls over a two-year timespan in another closed area – but reassured shareholders that it had insurance that would cover its fines.

Talley’s has faced two prosecutions of its subsidiary Amaltal: the first for its ship Amaltal Mariner trawling in Hikurangi Marine Reserve off Kaikoura. However, only the skipper was punished: the company had its conviction and fines overturned at appeal due to loopholes in the Marine Reserves Act that don’t allow a company to be held responsible for illegal fishing by its vessels and crew. 

The second Talley’s case saw the company convicted earlier this year for illegal fishing by its ship Amaltal Apollo, which trawled multiple times in an area of international waters placed off-limits to trawling by SPRFMO. This happened in 2018; it took three years to complete the prosecution. The company was fined $59,000 and the skipper $12,000. 

This year, despite calls by environmental and fishing groups, the Green Party and other concerned kiwis, three permits were issued to New Zealand trawlers to fish in the South Pacific: Two Sealord vessels, and Talley’s Amaltal Mariner (the same ship that trawled in a marine reserve).

Some of the agenda items of the upcoming meeting this week make for sad reading. How much ancient and slow-growing deep-sea corals and sponges is it okay to drag up in a trawl net? If you drag up more than the allowed amount of bycatch, how far away do you have to move before you can continue trawling? These are discussions that simply wouldn’t be necessary if New Zealand vessels weren’t still out there bottom trawling.

The real question is: why are we still allowing bottom trawlers to go out and trawl on the seamounts and features that are hotspots of deep sea life? In the Southern Ocean, bottom trawling has been banned altogether. In the North Atlantic, seamounts and features have been closed to trawling.

Rather than stepping back and asking whether the damage is worth it for 20 tonnes of fish, New Zealand is trying to drag SPRFMO into a vicious cycle.  The industry is claiming that because the Commission exists there needs to be a trawl fishery for orange roughy, that the trawl fishery is needed to provide research data for the stock assessment – which is needed because there is a trawl fishery. This is clearly not the case with acoustic surveys which don’t rely on killing fish.

The cost of management alone for this destructive and failing fishery must be staggering. Add in the costs to the environment, and the picture gets even bleaker: NZ trawlers in the South Pacific have dragged up as much as five  tonnes of coral in a single trawl. And science is showing that the coral in the net is just a small fraction of what’s destroyed on the seabed. 

In the cold, hard light of day – we’re talking about a fish that can live well over 200 years, may take till it’s in its eighties to breed every year, congregates on seamounts and features that are also home to ancient corals, sponges and other vulnerable marine life, and is being caught using an unsustainable and fuel-intensive method of heavy nets dragged across the seabed. SPRFMO hasn’t even considered the carbon footprint of trawling. It’s clear we don’t have to keep doing this.  

New Zealand is the last country in the South Pacific that’s bottom trawling on the high seas. Similarly, in the North Pacific there is one lone Japanese vessel trawling on the Emperor Seamounts. We are so close to having a shared Pacific Ocean where all seamount ecosystems are safe from bottom trawling – but New Zealand is one of the last remaining obstacles.

It’s time we became part of the solution, not part of the problem.

23 September, 2022



The European Union has agreed new measures to protect seamounts from bottom trawling, showing up the New Zealand government’s inaction on the issue, environment groups said today. 

Meanwhile, a NIWA study released this week has revealed that there are 1,996 seamounts and features in New Zealand waters. A proposal is being pushed by industry that only recognises 7% of these seamounts, and would leave all the areas they currently  trawl unprotected.

The EU had already banned bottom trawling altogether in waters deeper than 800m, and has now closed a further 16,000 square kilometres of the deep sea to bottom trawling in the Northeast Atlantic. While this is not yet full protection, it’s a far stronger protection regime than what the New Zealand government has undertaken. 

“New Zealanders are keen to see our oceans better protected, but the government is dragging its heels. More than 80,000 people have now signed a petition calling for bottom trawling to be banned on all seamounts and features, and polling shows 79% support this.”

Karli Thomas of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.

“Earlier this year the government set up a forum to consider increased protection of the seabed and the EU’s new protections show us what’s possible when we heed the science – not just cobble together bits of the ocean that the industry doesn’t want to trawl” said Thomas.

The closures in four EU countries in the exclusive economic zones of Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal.  add an additional 87 areas where cold water coral reefs, aggregations of deep-sea sponges, sea pens and other deepwater habitats are known or likely to occur between 400 and 800 metres depth.

New science shows just under 2000 seamounts and features in NZ waters
Meanwhile, NIWA scientists have found that our waters contain an astounding 1996 seamounts and features – set out in a new study released this week. These provide habitat for slow-growing species like corals and sponges that, without protection, can be reduced to rubble by weighted bottom trawling nets. 

“These new numbers show up Sealord’s “alternative facts” – the proposal it is touting only covers a tiny percentage of the seamounts and features in New Zealand waters. The industry’s campaign is designed to get the government to fall for a proposal that gives the appearance of protection, but in reality it’s pure greenwash,” said Greenpeace Aotearoa Oceans Campaigner, Ellie Hooper.

“If it went ahead, the Sealord proposal would allow its vessels to keep trawling everywhere they’re trawling now, plus some seamounts that haven’t been trawled for over a decade – where corals may be just beginning to recover.”  

“As we watch the EU limit bottom trawling in its waters, here in Aotearoa, the fishing industry is pushing a “destruction as usual” proposal that would see trawling continue to wipe out deep sea life,” said Scott MacIndoe of recreational fisheries group LegaSea.

“We call on Fisheries Minister David Parker to ignore the spin by the fishing industry, and move to protect our precious ocean.” 

“We have known for years that bottom trawling causes destruction of seafloor ecosystems that takes decades or centuries to recover from.  It’s time to protect seamounts and the vulnerable deep sea life they support, and ban bottom trawling,” said Natalie Jessup of the Endangered Species Foundation. 

23 September, 2022

Groundbreaking agreement on ecosystem approach to fisheries & prohibition on keeping ‘bycatch’ of Greenland shark agreed by Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization. Full closure of vulnerable marine ecosystems to damage from trawling is still required.

At its 44th Annual Meeting held in Porto, Portugal, the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) made significant progress in agreeing new fisheries science and management measures. This meeting was the first in person annual meeting since 2019, and the Deep Sea Conservation (DSCC) attended as an observer. 

Following over a decade of analysis by NAFO Scientific Council, Contracting Parties agreed that scientific advice should include an ecosystem indicator above which there is concern regarding overall catch levels and authorized the continuation of an ecosystem approach to fisheries to inform management decisions in the future. In addition, NAFO agreed to a prohibition on the retention of Greenland sharks, the longest-living shark in the world, within international waters of the Northwest Atlantic. 

“NAFO has often been on the leading edge of fisheries management measures in international waters,” said Matthew Gianni, Policy Advisor to the DSCC. Gianni commented: “We are hopeful that NAFO’s work to adopt an ecosystem threshold is the start of a new era of fisheries management that takes into account ecosystem dynamics and the impact of fishing on the environment as a whole, and not just setting quotas for the catch of individual fish stocks that could be considered sustainable.” 

The retention measure for Greenland sharks, which can live for up to 400 years, was first advised by NAFO’s Scientific Council in 2018 and finally adopted this year with support by all member countries. However,exemptions may be made where domestic rules ban discarding dead sharks. Continued work is needed to ensure that any bycatch is recorded and that all sharks caught are properly handled to give them the best chance to survive when released back into the ocean.

In 2021, NAFO became the first international fisheries management organization to protect all seamounts and related features from bottom fishing. The United Nations General Assembly in November of this year will review the actions taken by NAFO and other regional high seas fisheries organizations to protect seamounts and other biologically rich deep-sea ecosystems. “When countries agree to this type of conservation measure in one part of the world, it is imperative that those same countries agree to do the same in other high seas regions” says Matthew Gianni. Gianni added: “Seamounts are recognized as biodiversity hotspots and we are hoping to see further seamount protections at the Northeast Atlantic Fisheries Commission later this year and in the North and South Pacific in 2023.”

Concerns were raised at NAFO about the impacts of other activities in areas that NAFO has closed to fishing to protect deep-sea corals, sponges and other habitats easily damaged by trawling. Drilling for oil and gas is scheduled to begin in 2028 in some of these sites. For fisheries closures to be considered effective biodiversity protection measures, other impactful industrial activities should avoid these areas. 

NAFO generally followed scientific advice on fishing quotas, but quotas for some stocks continued to be set well above recent catch levels. On cod on the Flemish Cap in the NAFO area, in spite of scientific advice that the cod stock is once again in decline and the reservations by a number of countries including Canada, UK, US and Norway, the quota was set above the science advice of 5791T, at 6100T. Cod is an iconic species but has been fished for hundreds of years, and heavily overfished in the past several decades.

Much work still remains on protecting deep-sea habitats formed by sponges, coldwater corals and other species vulnerable to bottom trawl impacts on the Grand Banks and Flemish Cap. A number of such areas identified by the Scientific Council of NAFO have only been partially closed to fishing. Consideration of additional closures is scheduled for next year’s meeting of NAFO. The DSCC urged member countries this week to agree to fully close these areas at the 2023 meeting to ensure effective protection of these habitats. Prohibiting research trawls within closed areas remains unresolved, with further discussions scheduled for fall 2022 as part of the Scientific Council.

Our ocean is under tremendous pressure from overfishing, climate change impacts, plastics and pollution as well as emerging threats, such as deep-sea mining. Countries have recognized the urgency and committed to halting and reversing biodiversity loss in the marine environment. The closure of seamounts to bottom fishing last year by NAFO and the measures adopted at this week’s meeting are concrete steps in the right direction.” said Matthew Gianni.

15 September, 2022


For Immediate Release – 15.9.22

Today’s announcement by Virginijus Sinkevičius, the European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries will close over 16,000 square kilometers of the deep sea to bottom fishing in EU waters of the Northeast Atlantic. This will bring much needed protection to deep-sea corals, sponges and other habitat forming species off the Atlantic coasts of Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal.

The areas closed by the European Commission are needed to implement the EU deep-sea fisheries Regulation 2016/2336 adopted in 2016. The 2016 Regulation already prohibits bottom trawl fishing below 800 meters in EU waters in the northeast Atlantic. Today’s closures add an additional 87 areas where coldwater coral reefs, aggregations of deep-sea sponges, sea pens and other deepwater habitats are known or likely to occur between 400 and 800 meters depth. Despite complaints by some segments of the fishing industry, these closures represent less than 2 percent of the areas shallower than 800 meters depth in the EEZs of the four countries.

These deep-sea habitats, collectively known as Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems under EU and international law, create biologically diverse deep-sea ecosystems highly vulnerable to degradation by deep-sea bottom trawling.

The closures were required to be put into place already in 2018 under the deep-sea fisheries Regulation but the European Commission decided to conduct extensive consultations with scientists, member states, the fishing and seafood industries and NGOs, as well as hold a public consultation before finally making a decision.

While long overdue, we are pleased to see the Commission take firm action to protect these deep-sea ecosystems.”

Matthew Gianni, Political Advisor to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.

The move is significant because it reaffirms the importance of measures to protect the deep ocean, despite objections from the Spanish government and some sectors of the fishing industry.

The European Commission adopted the closures, based on scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, under a so-called Implementing Act established in the deep-sea fisheries Regulation. In June, when presented with the proposal for the closures by the Commission, 14 EU Member States voted for the proposal; 9 abstained and only 2 – Spain and Ireland – opposed. Two other States were not present for the vote.

On this basis, the European Commission (after a two-month period of notification with the UK required under the Brexit agreement) has decided to go ahead and finally adopted these closures today.