At Last, a Ray of Hope Reaches the Deep Sea
EU Commission Makes History with Proposal to Phase Out Bottom Trawling for Deep-Sea Species
The future may finally be brighter for the countless animals living in the depths of the sea. In a long-awaited move, the European Commission today proposed a phase-out of the destructive practice of deep-sea bottom trawling in the northeast Atlantic Ocean. Now the European Parliament and EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council must negotiate an agreement on the proposal before adopting legislation.
The deep sea begins at a depth of about 200 meters (650 feet), where most light cannot penetrate, and extends to the bottom of the ocean, an average depth of 4,000 meters (more than two miles). It is a world of massive canyons, erupting volcanoes, rivers, waterfalls, and 8,500-year-old coral reefs. Scientists once thought the deep sea was an empty abyss but now realize it is teeming with complex collections of animals ranging from single-celled bacteria to vertebrates—life forms unlike anything found close to the surface. The deep sea contains an extraordinarily biodiverse range of species, including two-thirds of the world's coral species.
Most species of deep-sea fish grow slowly and reproduce late in their long lives. For example, some deep-dwelling species found in the northeast Atlantic are known to live for up to 130 years. These characteristics make them highly vulnerable to depletion, and in some cases extinction, from overfishing. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) estimated in 2010 that 100 percent of the catch of deep-sea species by the EU is “outside safe biological limits,” meaning that overfishing could quickly drive them to extinction.
Read our deep-sea trawling policy analysis:
But because of new fishing technologies and gear, many of those species are under assault. In addition, fishing fleets cause significant harm to the ocean ecosystem by bottom trawling on fragile deep-sea habitats and overfishing vulnerable animals. This fishing method, which drags massive nets weighted with steel plates and cables across the seafloor, is recognized as the greatest threat to deep-sea coral and sponge ecosystems, according to scientific papers and reports from ICES, the United Nations Environment Programme, the European Union's deep-sea Hermione Project, and others.
The North Atlantic has been a hot spot for deep-sea bottom trawling since the 1970s. A large portion of the European Union's deep-sea fish catch is taken in this way, predominantly by French and Spanish fleets. Many EU deep-sea bottom trawl fleets are bolstered by public subsidies, meaning that European taxpayer money is being used to destroy deep-sea life.
The United Nations recognizes the threat from deep-sea bottom trawling, and in a series of General Assembly resolutions from 2004 to 2011, called for measures to ensure protection of this imperiled environment. These include conducting prior impact assessments to design and evaluate management actions to prevent significant adverse impacts on vulnerable deep-sea habitats and species.
The Pew Environment Group lauds Commissioner Damanaki for issuing the proposal. We now urge the EU to fully implement its obligations under the U.N. resolutions and to overhaul the management of deep-sea fisheries within EU waters, or to stop deep-sea bottom trawling altogether. Specifically, Pew recommends the European Parliament and EU member States strengthen the proposal further by:
- Requiring impact assessments for all deep-sea fisheries, not just new ones.
- Requiring fishing closures in deep-sea areas where vulnerable marine species are known or likely to live unless these areas can be managed to prevent significant adverse impacts.
- Requiring that all animals be sustainably caught—including those taken incidentally (bycatch)—and that all bycatch be landed unless there is adequate justification (e.g., potentially high survival rate) for throwing it back.
Pew strongly urges EU policymakers to seize this opportunity to permanently protect the fish and other marine animals whose habitat is the deep sea.