Imagine an unexplored underwater mountain rising more than half a mile from the seafloor
, home to hundreds of species
, perhaps a third of them found nowhere else in the world. Sponges abound and slow-growing corals
more than 100 feet tall, form colorful and complex structures in this untouched paradise. They provide feeding, breeding, and spawning areas and protect young fish from currents and other species.
Then imagine a five-ton "canyon buster" trawl net being dragged across the bottom, scooping up and pulverizing everything in its path. The huge net is drawn by a commercial fishing boat in search of a single high-value species: orange roughy, one among many species that call the seamount home. The net leaves behind a bare rock bottom in place of the vital landscape it destroys. When the 20-minute trawl has been completed and the nets are hauled on deck, 15 tons of coral and other dead or dying marine life are tossed over the side of the boat as wasteful bycatch.
The scene, unfortunately, is more common than you might guess. Advances in bottom trawl technology have made it the preferred method for deep sea fishing, with the main focus on underwater plateaus, ridges, and seamounts where the large target fish species congregate to spawn. In some areas, newly discovered stocks are fished down to just 15 percent to 30 percent of the initial biomass in five years.
Intensive bottom trawling over the last 40 years has also led to losses of more than 90 percent of deep water coral reefs on seamounts that have been repeatedly targeted. In addition to providing habitat for a wide range of marine biodiversity, these deep sea coral and sponge communities are a largely untapped source of natural antibiotics, anti-cancer agents, painkillers, and compounds used to treat asthma and heart disease. Ancient corals also provide valuable records of historical climate conditions that may enhance our understanding of global climate change.
"With 70 percent of the world's coastal fish stocks over-exploited or collapsed and 90 percent of the biggest fish wiped out, we have turned to the deep oceans in our increasingly relentless and destructive pursuit of the dwindling supply of seafood," says Sylvia Earle, executive director of CI's Global Marine Division. Conveniently, much of the deep water on which these industrial fleets are now focusing their efforts lies beyond the 200 mile exclusive economic zones of coastal nations. The high seas cover 64 percent of the world's oceans, are largely unexplored, and are virtually lawless.
Safeguarding the High Seas
Following the Defying Ocean's End conference convened by CI in 2003 and in response to recommended actions included in the resulting Agenda for Action, many organizations rallied around the issue of deep sea bottom trawling. CI is on the steering committee of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, a union of more than 50 non-governmental organizations that is calling on the United Nations General Assembly to adopt an immediate moratorium on the practice until regulations can be adopted and enforced.
There have been positive steps toward the goal of protecting deep sea habitats in recent months. In March the government of Palau announced a ban on bottom trawling in its waters and made it illegal for any citizen of the country to engage in the fishing practice anywhere in the world. The government of Kiribati recently announced the creation of the first marine protected area (MPA) with deep sea habitat in the Pacific region. Located midway between Australia and Hawaii, the vast area includes seamounts and reef systems within its 71,300 square miles of nearly pristine marine wilderness.
Over the past several years, the U.N.General Assembly has adopted a series of resolutions calling on the international community to take urgent measures to protect deep sea ecosystems from bottom trawling and other destructive practices on the high seas. While individual nations have made progress in halting this destructive fishing practice within their jurisdiction, vast areas of open ocean are without effective laws.
If the U.N. General Assembly enacts a moratorium this autumn, it will be an important achievement in protecting deep sea ecosystems and an important first step toward incorporating biodiversity conservation into the governance of international waters.
"The high seas have become a marine version of the Wild West, lawless and ungoverned regions where fishery freebooters plunder at will," says Dr. Earle. "We don't bulldoze forests to hunt deer, and we shouldn't destroy the seafloor to catch fish. The high seas and all marine ecosystems can and should be managed sustainably, to ensure a future for life in the ocean and the economies that depend upon them."