Opinion

Stop the Trawlers that Wreck the Ocean Floor

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Beyond the territorial limits of the world's coastal countries lies a vast area of ocean that belongs to no one. Referred to as the high seas, most of this area lies beyond the edge of the continental shelf, past the 200-mile, or 320-kilometer, limit from shore that most countries consider within their domain. Ranging to depths of up to 33,000 feet, or 10,000 meters, this huge expanse of sea covers almost 50 percent of the earth's surface. Because it is under no single country's jurisdiction, it is particularly vulnerable to being exploited by all and protected by none.

Until recently, scientists knew little about life in the deep sea, nor had reason to believe that it was being threatened. Now, with the benefit of technology that allows for deeper exploration, researchers have uncovered a remarkable array of species inhabiting the ocean floor at depths of more than 660 feet, or about 200 meters. At the same time, however, technology has also enabled fishermen to reach far deeper than ever before, into areas where bottom trawls can destroy in minutes what has taken nature hundreds and in some cases thousands of years to build. 

Many of the world's coral species, for example, are found at depths of more than 200 meters. It is also estimated that roughly half of the world's highest seamounts--areas that rise from the ocean floor and are particularly rich in marine life--are also found in the deep ocean. 

These deep sea ecosystems provide shelter, spawning and breeding areas for fish and other creatures, as well as protection from strong currents and predators. Moreover, they are believed to harbor some of the most extensive reservoirs of life on earth, with estimates ranging from 500,000 to 100 million species inhabiting these largely unexplored and highly fragile ecosystems. 

Yet just as we are beginning to recognize the tremendous diversity of life in these areas, along with the potential benefits newly found species may hold for human society in the form of potential food products and new medicines, they are at risk of being lost forever. With enhanced ability both to identify where these species-rich areas are located and to trawl in deeper water than before, commercial fishing vessels are now beginning to reach down with nets the size of football fields, catching everything in their path while simultaneously crushing fragile corals and breaking up the delicate structure of reefs and seamounts that provide critical habitat to the countless species of fish and other marine life that inhabit the deep ocean floor. 

Because deep sea bottom trawling is a recent phenomenon, the damage that has been done is still limited. If steps are taken quickly to prevent this kind of destructive activity from occurring on the high seas, the benefits both to the marine environment and to future generations are incalculable. And they far outweigh the short-term costs to the fishing industry. 

At present, it is estimated that no more than several hundred vessels are engaged in high seas bottom trawl fishing worldwide. The overall value of their catch is from $300 million to $400 million each year, or about 0.5 percent of the annual value of the global marine catch. The most recent information shows that 95 percent of the reported high seas bottom trawl catch is taken by only 11 countries. And one of these nations, Spain, accounts for 40 percent of it all. 

Put simply, if high seas bottom trawling were banned tomorrow, the economic impacts to the fishing industry would be minimal, while the benefits to the global marine environment, and ultimately to fishermen themselves, would be tremendous. 

This month, a coalition of international environmental organizations, representing citizens from more than 150 countries, called on the United Nations, the global body responsible for protecting the high seas, to impose a moratorium on deep sea bottom trawling. More than 1,100 of the world's most respected conservation biologists and marine scientists recently called for similar action, citing the urgent need to protect these pristine areas of the sea before they are reduced to little more than rubble on the ocean floor. 

It would be short-sighted and tragic if their plea goes unheeded. The UN General Assembly should move quickly to halt this highly destructive activity that benefits so few at the expense of the world's oceans, which provide food and jobs to so many.