NAFO: Much Talk Yields Little Action

North Atlantic Fisheries OrganizationA frustrating week at a key fisheries management meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, leaves the rich biodiversity of the deep sea still wanting for protection. At the 2012 meeting of the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), a Pew Environment Group delegation pushed hard for the organization to adopt deep sea safeguards based on a range of prior international commitments and new scientific evidence about the extent of fragile coral systems within NAFO waters.

Canada, the European Union and the United States, with the support of Norway, had proposed closing a set of deep-sea areas to bottom trawl fishing where scientists have found evidence of sea pens and gorgonian corals.  The proposals generated considerable debate at the meeting this week but were not adopted because of opposition and lack of support from other NAFO member countries.

The international commitments date to 2004, when the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the first in a series of resolutions committing all NAFO member countries to protect such deep-sea areas, known as ‘vulnerable marine ecosystems', from the harmful impacts of fishing. 

Andrea Kavanagh, who led the Pew delegation, called NAFO's failure to act “extremely frustrating.” She noted that the new science “shows exactly where concentrations of fragile deep sea gorgonian corals and sea pens are located. Yet NAFO failed to expand existing closed areas to protect these species from the disastrous impact of bottom-trawling.”

The UNGA resolutions also committed high seas fishing nations to conduct environmental impact assessments of deep-sea fisheries to ensure that they are managed sustainably and without damaging deep-sea ecosystems.

Between 2006 and 2010 NAFO closed to bottom fishing a number of areas that harbor corals and seamounts. However, since 2010 NAFO has agreed to only limited conservation and protection measures in spite of continued scientific evidence that more deep-sea areas and species on the high seas of the Northwest Atlantic need protection from bottom trawl fishing.

Matthew Gianni of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition and an expert on deep sea protections, said, “Last year NAFO finally agreed to conduct environmental impact assessments – but did not commit to do them until 2016 – and now this year failed to close areas which scientists have clearly indicated are in need of protection. We're concerned that a number of NAFO countries are reneging on their UN commitments and as a result NAFO itself is becoming incapable of managing fisheries to the standards set by the international community and under international law.”

For now, frustrations mount for those committed to deep sea conservation while NAFO, which could actually advance needed protections, sits on its hands.

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Media Contact: John Briley

Topics: Oceans, Environment

Project: Protecting the Deep Sea