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Agreement to restrict South Pacific high seas bottom trawling - is it enough?

10 May 2007

Twenty countries and the European Commission involved in the latest negotiations in Reñaca, Chile, to establish the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization, have reached an agreement on interim measures to control high seas bottom trawling.

Bottom trawling will be restricted to not exceed current levels, and must not expand into any new areas of the high seas.

Bottom trawling may only continue if an independent peer-review can be satisfied that there will be no significant adverse effect on vulnerable seamount, hydrothermal vent, cold water coral and sponge field ecosystems.

Just how the review group can be satisfied that there will be no adverse effect is unknown.  Very little is known about deep high seas ecosystems.  Most undersea topography in the high seas is not mapped, and the locations of many seamounts, hydrothermal vents, and various habitats is not known.

The interim measures, which will apply while the new organisation is being established, will take effect from 30 September 2007.

It will be a challenge for New Zealand vessels to satisfy the assessment and review requirements of the new rules.

The Minister of Fisheries, Jim Anderton, confirmed that the new rules would limit high seas bottom trawling by New Zealand vessels. “It will be a challenge for New Zealand fishing vessels to satisfy the assessment and review requirements of the new rules.  However, the industry has known for some time that these controls were likely and that they would have to meet them if they want to keep on bottom trawling on the high seas,” he said.

Member nations of the South Pacific RFMO must appoint observers to each vessel flying their flag, that bottom trawls in the area.

Each country must ensure that all of its flag vessels operating in the RFMO are equipped with a vessel monitoring system.

Areas where vulnerable marine ecosystems are known or likely to occur must be closed to bottom fishing unless, conservation and management measures are established, or it is determined that bottom fishing will not have significant adverse impacts, to prevent significant adverse impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems and the long-term sustainability of deep sea fish stocks.

Interim measures require that vessels bottom fishing within 5 nautical miles of any site where evidence of vulnerable marine ecosystems is encountered, trawling must stop, and details of the encounter must be reported.

Starting in 2010, conservation and management measures must be established before opening new regions or expanding fishing effort or catch beyond existing levels.

The success of protection of vulnerable ecosystems from South Pacific RFMO interim measures will be dependent on the standard (or level) of protection adopted by the Science Working Group, definition of vulnerable ecosystems, and the extent of data collected that makes an ecosystem discernable.  The interim measures agreement does not provide these distinctions.

The measures are voluntary, and are not legally binding under international law, so successful conservation will also be dependent on the extent of action each member nation takes.

The Chile meeting is the third held under the initiative taken by New Zealand, Australia and Chile for an agreement to manage fisheries of the high seas in an area stretching from Western Australia to Chile, and from the Equator to Antarctica.

The negotiating parties of the RFMO are Australia, Canada, Chile, China, Cook Islands, Colombia, Ecuador, European Commission, Federated States of Micronesia, France, Japan, New Zealand, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Palau, Peru, Russia, South Korea, Ukraine, United States, and Vanuatu.

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The largest South Pacific bottom trawling fleet .....

The New Zealand bottom trawling fleet represents 90 percent of the bottom trawling in the South Pacific region.

During failed United Nations negotiations in 2006 to impose a worldwide moratorium on bottom trawling, New Zealand advocated effective measures in those areas of the high seas already being managed by an RFMO, and effective interim measures where an RFMO is under negotiation.

New Zealand's initiative with the South Pacific RFMO follows the country's position at the United Nations in 2006, and the outcome. The government is obligated to act with the RFMO in the manner it advocated at the UN.

The New Zealand government will now be closely watched in a transparent RFMO process, to ensure the measures are acted on.

South Pacific RFMO bottom trawling discussions were based on a proposal tabled by New Zealand in advance of the meeting. The final outcome incorporated all of the essential elements of the New Zealand proposal.

Getting bottom trawling controls implemented and agreed before the end of this year was the top priority for New Zealand,” the Minister of Fisheries Jim Anderton said.

New Zealand emphasised the need for the new organisation to take an ecosystems approach to fisheries management.

The inconsistent government standards

When announcing the South Pacific RFMO measures, the Minister of Fisheries said "New Zealand leads the world again in protecting marine environment".

In August 2006, New Zealand predicted that a United Nations moratorium was unlikely because of the lack of support, and did not offer support.

New Zealand came under intense criticism for damage caused by bottom trawling in the high seas at the 2004 meeting of the UN Informal Consultation on the Law of the Sea (UNICPLOS).

World leadership in marine protection has not been apparent.  New Zealand has never been willing to control New Zealand flagships that bottom trawl in its' EEZ, or high seas areas of the Tasman Sea and the Southern Indian Ocean, even though it has the ability to do so.


Coral bycatch (above) from a New Zealand vessel bottom trawling in the high seas.  Image Crown Copyright © Ministry of Fisheries

View 70 images of bottom trawling bycatch

Bottom trawling has no restriction in 70 percent of the New Zealand EEZ

14 May 2007

While the NZ government proposes controls on bottom trawling in high seas areas of the South Pacific RFMO, New Zealand vessels continue unrestricted bottom trawling in 70 percent of the Exclusive Economic Zone.

Fishing companies do not have to satisfy any review process that there will be no significant adverse effect on vulnerable ecosystems in the areas of the New Zealand EEZ that are not closed to bottom trawling.

The New Zealand government has proposed one standard in the South Pacific RFMO, and another non-restrictive standard in its own EEZ.

In April 2007 the Minister if Fisheries announced the fake protection of marine ecosystems from bottom trawling within 17 Benthic Protected Areas (BPA) covering a total of 1,250,000 which is 30% of the EEZ.

A Ministry of Fisheries trawling map shows that very limited bottom trawling has occurred in the closed areas.  In many areas the seafloor topography is too steep, uneven or rocky for bottom trawling gear to traverse, or the habitat is barren and void of bottom feeding fish.

In 25 years bottom trawling has destroyed 28.3 million hectares of EEZ seafloor habitat, which is more than New Zealand's land area.

A National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) study commissioned by the Department of Conservation states “… the focus of this proposal on existing areas that have both very low fishing value and low fish diversity, makes it a poor option for the long-term protection of demersal fish diversity …”.

The fishing industry BPA proposal required government agreement not to close any additional areas in the EEZ. This was amended to ensure that the Marine Protected Area process will continue within the Territorial Sea.  The failed attempt by the fishing industry to block further fishing closures in the entire EEZ, show how insincere towards true conservation the so-called protection in the BPAs is.

New Zealand bottom trawlers carry on in the Southern Indian Ocean

In 2006, Sealord Group (New Zealand), Austral Fisheries Pty Ltd (Australia), Bel Ocean II Ltd (Mauritius), and Trans Namibia Fishing Pty Ltd (Namibia) formed the Southern Indian Ocean Deepwater Fishers’ Association (SIODFA).  In an attempt to appease public opposition, SIODFA proposed to close a total of 309,000 in eleven Benthic Protected Areas to any bottom trawling.

No nation has jurisdiction over the high seas of the Southern Indian Ocean, however, the New Zealand government could control Sealord's New Zealand flagged vessels, but has not.

The operators of the five vessels that bottom trawl in the Southern Indian Ocean will simply move their operations outside the BPAs that have already been bottom trawled, to continue to fish in other locations. The public cannot be fooled by duplicitous no-trawling schemes.

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