These are challenging times for the EU, but amidst all the uncertainty, there was cause for celebration last week for ocean lovers across Europe. The European Commission, European Parliament and the Council of the EU finally reached agreement to implement new regulations on deep sea bottom trawling in the Northeast Atlantic. After many years of campaigning, Synchronicity Earth project partners Bloom Association and the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition were instrumental in this landmark victory for marine conservation, a testament to their incredibly hard work and dedication.
What is bottom trawling?
Bottom-trawling is a hugely destructive fishing practice that has laid waste to vast areas of the seabed. As fishing trawlers search ever deeper and further to target dwindling fish stocks, they use huge nets to trawl the ocean depths. In the Northeast Atlantic, these boats regularly trawl at depths down to 1500 metres. Bottom trawlers use a system of weights and beams to keep their nets open as they drag across the seafloor, obliterating most of what lies in their path.
Image: Don Foley, Oceana
Why does the deep sea matter?
It is often said that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the ocean depths, but contrary to what many people believe, the deep seas contain a staggering diversity of life.
Did you know…
- The vast majority of marine species live on or near the seabed;
- It is thought there may be more species of coral found in cold, deep water than there are on the more familiar, shallower coral reefs found in the tropics;
- The oldest cold water corals are thought to be up to 8,000 years old;
- There are believed to be hundreds of thousands, if not millions of deep sea species that have yet to be discovered;
- Some deep sea organisms have been found to be potential sources of valuable new medicines such as antibiotics and painkillers.
Ecosystems made up of cold water corals, bottom-dwelling fish and their habitats, crustaceans and sponges, which have taken hundreds or even thousands of years to create, are destroyed in one indiscriminate pass of a bottom trawler. The destruction and waste does not stop there: Around 80% of what is brought up in the nets is ‘by-catch’ – fish and other species which do not have commercial value and are thrown back into the sea, dead. Many of these deepwater species are extremely slow growing so it may be difficult or impossible for them to recover.
Find out more: Oceana – Stand up for the deep
What are the new regulations?
The new regulation applies to an area of 932,000 square kilometres in the North Sea and Northeast Atlantic Ocean. Although much of this area is currently too deep for bottom trawlers, which generally fish to a maximum of 1500 metres, crucially around 15% (around 143,000 square km) comprises an area of the continental slope bordering Europe. This area is between 800 and 1500 metres in depth and is known to have a high diversity of fish species as well as cold water reefs, coral gardens, deep-sea sponges and sediment ecosystems which host diverse species.
Another positive outcome of the agreement is that bottom trawling by EU fishing vessels in an area of the Atlantic off West Africa will also be prohibited. This is particularly important, as the waters around the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands contain a large number of seamounts, which are biodiversity and fish biomass hotspots. Many of the peaks of these seamounts (70 out of around 100) lie between 800 to 1500 metres below the surface, and therefore would be protected by a ban.
Under the agreement:
- no deep sea fishing will be permitted below a depth of 800 metres;
- deep sea fishing below 400 metres will be banned in areas classified as Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VMEs);
- restrictions will limit the areas in which deep sea fishing can take place;
- 20% of vessels will have EU observers on board to ensure timely and accurate data collection.
Although campaigners had advocated a ban on fishing below 600 metres, this was still an impressive victory in the face of persistent lobbying from the powerful fishing industry and other commercial interests.
Persistence pays off
Synchronicity Earth is really proud to be associated with two organisations that have made this happen. Without their advocacy and tireless campaigning – on social media, in the press, in the corridors of EU power – it is unlikely that this landmark decision would have been reached. This was a victory for the marine environment and a victory for conservation, a timely reminder that the European Union, for all its faults, does have the capacity, with the right encouragement, to implement positive change across the continent and help conserve our shared natural heritage.
Find out more:
DSCC (Deep Sea Conservation Coalition)
Deep Sea fishing in the Northeast Atlantic – An overview. (Pew Environment Group)
Bloom: Bodypainting – an example of Bloom’s campaigning
Find out about the deep sea (TED) – Claire Nouvian (Director, Bloom Association)
European Parliament Press Release
Learn more about deep sea corals (The Ocean Portal: Smithsonian Museum of Natural history)
Deep sea corals (David Attenborough on Lophelia.org)
Learn more about Seamounts (a WWF/Oasis report)