Will New EU Fishing Regulations Stop Destruction of Deep-sea Life?

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The challenge of ending destructive fishing practices

The European Parliament has a chance next Tuesday, December 10th, to take new steps to protect highly vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems from destructive fishing practices. Doing so would build on earlier actions and help meet broader goals set by the United Nations.

Since 2006, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly called on all fishing nations to manage fish stocks sustainably and to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems from destructive practices such as bottom trawling. Many scientists, marine conservation organisations, and a growing number of small-scale fishers also have made clear that they oppose the destruction of marine life on the seabed that results from these fishing practices.

In recent years, the European Union, or EU, has moved to eliminate certain destructive deep-sea fishing methods in European and international waters. One case in point: the use of bottom gillnets below 600 meters has been prohibited in EU waters since 2007. In addition, bottom trawling and gillnetting below 200 meters is prohibited in EU waters off the Azores, Canary and Madeira islands. Several regional fisheries management organisations, of which the EU is a leading party, also have prohibited or limited the use of such practices in their deep waters.  

The European Commission's 2007 review of EU deep-sea fisheries management recognised the problem, saying that “many deep-sea stocks have such low productivity that sustainable levels of exploitation are probably too low to support an economically viable fishery”. As a result, the European Commission started a review of the current and flawed EU deep-sea fisheries regulation. On July 12, 2012, it published a proposal to establish new conditions for fishing deep-sea stocks in the Northeast Atlantic. The main objectives are to protect highly vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems from destructive fishing practices, prevent the depletion of deep-sea species, set science-based and precautionary catch limits on deep-sea stocks, and eliminate the bycatch, or incidental catch, in these fisheries. If adopted, this strong proposal would mark a significant turning point in the management of deep-sea fisheries in Europe.

In March 2013, the Environment Committee of the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Commission's proposal. The vote was 51 to 0, with one abstention. Yet the Fisheries Committee—the Parliament's lead committee on this issue—hindered progress by postponing its vote several times. The delays have begun to jeopardise the proposal's survival as Members of the European Parliament increasingly focus their attention on the May 2014 elections.

On November 4th, the Fisheries Committee finally voted on a suite of measures that would help protect vulnerable deep-sea species and ecosystems such as corals, sponges, and seamounts. But it rejected the proposal from the European Commission to phase out the most destructive deep-sea fishing practices, including deep-sea bottom trawling. This method is widely recognised as the greatest threat to deep-sea biodiversity and fish populations. The report adopted by the Committee will be considered by the plenary of the European Parliament on December 10th.

“It's now up to the 766 members of the European Parliament to represent the broader opinion of all European citizens, and support the Commission in phasing out the most destructive deep-sea fishing methods,” said Matthew Gianni, policy advisor to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition and The Pew Charitable Trusts. “We all have a stake in a healthy, biologically rich, and productive deep sea and the benefits it supplies to the planet. Conserving it will be a great legacy.”

The Fisheries Council, made up of fisheries ministers from the 28 EU member states, has yet to determine its position on the proposal. Council discussions have not started.

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