Fragile deep-sea habitats that have taken centuries to grow are destroyed within hours by bottom trawlers. Commercially valuable catch ends up in fish markets, restaurants, and even school lunches, while everything else is discarded. Most of the species that are caught reproduce slowly. For example, orange roughy can live for more than 100 years and only start reproducing between ages 23 and 40. The deep sea is also home to remarkably rich coral systems. Once thought to inhabit only warm, shallow waters of tropical and subtropical regions, corals appeared to have been thriving in deep, dark, and cold waters throughout the world for millions of years. Indeed, it is now thought that there are more coral species living at great ocean depths than in tropical shallows.
Carbon dating of living cold-water coral reefs has revealed that the oldest may have existed for more than 8,000 years. Several of the coral species create complex reefs and ornate, forest-like structures that rival tropical coral systems in their size and complexity. In fact, the oldest and tallest reef yet observed is 35 meters high, about 114 feet. It will take hundreds of years, if not longer, for these deep-sea ecosystems to recover from destructive fishing methods.
In 2006, the U.N. General Assembly called on all fishing nations to manage fish stocks sustainably and to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems from destructive fishing practices, including bottom trawling. In 2016, it urged countries to redouble efforts to protect deep-ocean species and ecosystems from the destructive impact of deep-sea fishing.
The North Atlantic is the most heavily bottom-trawled area in the world and is exploited mainly by the fishing fleets of the European Union.
The Pew Charitable Trusts, a member of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, has worked over the past 10 years to support reforms to the EU regulation on deep-sea fishing. Formally adopted on Dec. 13, 2016, the new legislation now includes a ban on bottom trawling below 800 meters in European waters, and a requirement to close deep-sea areas to bottom fishing to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems.
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