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Intense bottom trawling during the last 40 years has destroyed more than 90 percent of deep water coral reefs on many seamounts. The above samples of coral bycatch were taken from bottom trawling nets that dragged high seas seafloor in 2004 and 2005.

Images Crown Copyright © Ministry of Fisheries
View slide slow of 70 bycatch images

NZ government drags its feet on bottom trawling ban

22 June 2006

In 2004 in the article "Government response to bottom trawling is not good enough: An immediate moratorium is needed", TerraNature commented on the inadequacy of the New Zealand government strategy to improve the protection of deep-sea biodiversity, and address the threat of bottom trawling.

In 2004 the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Fisheries, and Conservation said "we will be looking to advance discussions at the United Nations General Assembly and with regional partners to get a strong resolution for interim targeted bans on bottom trawling in vulnerable areas while effective management frameworks are being developed".

Not much has been accomplished in stopping destructive fishing practices since then.  The 2004 strategy appears to have been forgotten.

The NZ government has shunned the United Nation's process that could impose a moratorium on bottom trawling worldwide. 

A UN ban is possible, as a growing number of countries express the urgent need to control destructive fishing practices.

New Zealand keeps announcing strategies on high seas bottom trawling, and cooperation with other countries, but no action has been taken, there are no agreements, and destruction of seafloor biodiversity continues.

The current government has switched to taking a leading role with Australia and Chile in forming the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (RFMO).  And nothing much has yet happened with that.  The only result of the first meeting in February 2006 was the decision to meet again in November.

Urgent action is needed ....

Fisheries Minister Jim Anderton told the RFMO meeting "New Zealand will push for urgent interim measures to address the effects of bottom trawling on the high seas."

In a press release on 14 February 2006 entitled "NZ calls for urgent action on high seas bottom trawling", Mr Anderton said "we recognise it may take 3 or 4 years for the RFMO to get fully established so we support urgent interim measures."  Now, six months later, there are no measures.

While this dilly-dallying continues, 20 pounds of corals, sponges and other deepsea species are killed for every pound of commercial fish caught in trawl nets. Half of the world's continental shelf is bottom trawled every year.  It takes one trawl to obliterate the habitat of a seabed.

After a 20-minute trawl has been completed, 15 tons of dead or dying marine life is thrown back in the sea.

In one day, about 300 of the world's bottom trawling vessels will drag their net gear weighing five tons across 1500 of high seas seafloor.

The world cannot wait three years, or one year, or at all, for an RFMO to be effective.  Three or fours years is long enough to reduce newly discouvered fish stocks to 20 percent of their original biomass.  Urgent measures (that Mr Anderton refers to) are needed immediately.  Urgently!

New Zealand calls for urgent action on high seas bottom trawling, but fails to take actions that are available.

The urgent measure of a moratorium will allow time to assess critical seafloor habitats, and establish policies, legislation and regulations for long-term protection.

On the lawless Wild West frontier of the high seas, the government has the ability to control New Zealand's 20-30 bottom trawling vessels.

In March of this year, the government of Palau announced a ban on bottom trawling throughout its waters, and made the fishing practice by any citizen of Palau in any part of the world illegal.

The small nation of Palau has set an example that New Zealand and other nations with bottom trawling fleets should follow.

Lacking New Zealand EEZ sustainability controls

The Fisheries Minister announced in February the development of a draft accord with the country's deepwater fishing companies to close 30 percent of the Exclusive Economic Zone to bottom trawling, but otherwise only refers to the high seas when talking about bottom trawling management.

Many of the proposed closed areas would not be fished anyway (See "NZ government to protect seamounts from bottom trawling..."), because they have already been overfished and there is no habitat left for fish, the seafloor is too deep, or the terrain is too steep or rocky for bottom trawling gear to traverse.

Jim Anderton says the government is "deeply concerned about the sustainable use of fish stocks and the impacts of bottom trawling on vulnerable marine habitats", but he also explains the need for a balance between sustainable production of food and environmental impacts.  There has been no such balance in the EEZ up to this time.  Commercial fishing has been supported for economic reasons, while conservation was ignored completely.

A small deepsea octopus caught as bycatch in a bottom trawling net.

View larger image

The scale always seems to tip in the favour of resource exploitation, as demonstrated by the Fisheries Minister's decision to allow a large increase in allowable fur seal bycatch in the squid fishery, despite the objection of the Minister of Conservation, Chris Carter.

The government's position that "banning trawling out-right is not an option" is clearly evident from past and current actions.

The commitment of the government to Mr Anderton's statement "we do need to ensure that sensitive and representative ecosystems are protected" must be questioned, considering similar previous statements on strategies did not materialize into protective measures.

It is unacceptable that 70 percent of the EEZ remains open to bottom trawling, without a process to establish controls.  It is easy for the fishing industry to enter into an agreement with the government to close areas that are not fished.  It is another matter to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the entire EEZ to determine sensitive and representative ecosystem protection priorities.

In January 2006 New Zealand applied to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, for control of an additional 1,700,000 of continental shelf seabed, which increases the area of the EEZ by 42 percent.

New Zealand will not have special fisheries rights in the waters over the continental shelf seabed, but will be able to mine minerals and extract oil and gas.  Destruction of the seabed from bottom trawling must be a consideration in the government's obligation under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to protect and preserve the marine environment.

Groupers were abundant on deepsea Oculina coral reefs off Florida's Atlantic Coast before bottom trawling (above upper). All that is left after trawling (above lower) is a pile of coral rubble without fish.

Images (upper) Dr R Grant Gilmore, Dynamic Corporation, (lower) Larnce Horn, National Undersea Research Center, University of North Carolina, courtesy of NOAA
View larger images

Deepsea lobster
All images are of bycatch from bottom trawling nets, photographed by onboard observers on New Zealand vessels fishing on the high seas in 2004 and 2005.  Most of the wide variety of marine animals found in bottom trawling nets are new to science and have not been named.
All images Crown Copyright © Ministry of Fisheries, by permission of the Ministry

See "Diverse bycatch reveals extensive bottom trawling seabed destruction"
View slide show of 70 bycatch images

New Zealand's waning position on a UN high seas moratorium

The New Zealand bottom trawling fleet of 25 to 30 vessels is one of the world's largest operating on the high seas.  The NZ government needs to address worldwide bottom trawling by New Zealand vessels that fish in distant locations such as the Indian Ocean, beyond the area of the proposed South Pacific RFMO.

Exactly what New Zealand's position is on high seas bottom trawling is anybody's guess.  It appears to be convoluted around "ifs" and "buts" the Fisheries Minister relates to the direction a UN agreement may take.

Statements from the Minister clearly indicate that the country is not committed, and is not acting to help cause a specific UN resolution.

In his press release of 14 February 2006, Jim Anderton said New Zealand would support a global moratorium on high seas bottom trawling, in principle, if such a proposal had sufficient support from States to be a practical and enforceable option.

This is a suggestion from the Fisheries Minister that UN controls may be ineffective.  World treaties and agreements between nations are consistently violated, but this should not be a reason for not establishing an agreement.  New Zealand enthusiastically supports and honours an International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium, despite commercial whaling by three countries.

New Zealand was a leading nation in establishing a worldwide ban on drift net fishing, without the same concern for enforcement.  That was easier when New Zealand did not have a drift net fleet.

Mr Anderton also stated in the same press release "In areas where no RFMO exists or is not under negotiation we support a moratorium.  However, we need to recognise that without international cooperation such a moratorium will be difficult to enforce".

In this case, if negotiations were occurring in the South Pacific RFMO, would New Zealand be hoping to buy more time for its' bottom trawling fleet?  Agreement between nations has to be unanimous so all it has to do is not agree to a ban.

Chile which is one of the leading nations in forming the RFMO, has stated "taking into account the lack of regulations on the high seas ... States must be encouraged to refrain from authorizing their nationals to conduct fishing activities using destructive practices, including bottom trawling".  Chile will be looking to restrict New Zealand bottom trawling, so there is disagreement within the proposed RFMO before it gets underway.

It is very apparent that the Minister of Fisheries does not want to impose a moratorium that would reduce the country's seafood exports of $1.2 billion.

In addition to trying to avoid the loss of exports, New Zealand has not initiated a restriction in its own waters, or on its own fleet because it does not want other bottom trawling nations to have an unfair advantage.

The United Nations provides an opportunity for New Zealand to support a global moratorium on all high seas, and in all RFMOs, that is equally restrictive on all bottom trawling nations.

Mr Anderton has also said "... if we cannot get agreement on an RFMO for the South Pacific in the near future, or anywhere else on the high seas for that matter, then we support a moratorium on bottom trawling until sensitive areas can be identified and permanently protected ... "  But the Minister stated that it will only support a moratorium if it is enforceable.

Instead of taking the wishy-washy back-seat position of waiting for a UN resolution and the commitment of all countries, New Zealand must act immediately according to the need, which the Minister of Fisheries has recognised as urgent.

In order to attract the attention of other countries and address the UN General Assembly with credibility, the New Zealand government needs to stop all New Zealand fishing vessels from bottom trawling immediately.

Support for a moratorium from one of the world's largest bottom trawling nations such as New Zealand would have considerable influence at the UN.  It is a necessary crucial first step in establishing equal conditions for bottom trawling fisheries worldwide.

There is a historical opportunity for New Zealand act with vigor and importance, to lead other bottom trawling countries by example, and to work with the many countries that have already expressed the need for a global moratorium.

See "Countries work towards a worldwide moratorium on bottom trawling at the United Nations"

The risk to all of New Zealand's primary exports, that are marketed to the world with the "clean and green" label, is enormous, if the country does nothing to stop bottom trawling, and a UN moratorium becomes effective.  Credibility in foreign markets as a primary producing country using sustainable practices, which has already been damaged, will be destroyed.

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

As one of 11 countries with bottom trawling fleets, New Zealand is gaining the same disrepute Japan has obtained as one of 3 countries violating the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling. New Zealand is a leading advocate in opposing whaling.

At the FishOps 2006 Workshop, Mr Anderton said "New Zealand has a good story to tell on our environmental management.  New Zealand's fisheries management system is acknowledged internationally as one of the few successful quota management systems".

The Fisheries Minister says the goal is to at least double the value from commercial fisheries over the next 10 years.  He explained that this will be achieved without an increase in the quantity of wild fish caught, by attaining environmental certification to increase the market value.

This plan seems to be ironically flawed.  Consumers just might not accept a New Zealand eco-label (if it can be obtained) if the country allows destructive fishing practices, and if it earns a reputation as one of a few bottom trawling nations that held out at the United Nations to prevent a global moratorium.

Back in 2004 New Zealand talked about its cooperation with Australia to establish regional management to control fishing, and identify areas for protection in the Tasman Sea.  Discussions with Australia had actually been going on for a decade at that time.  So the talk continues, and there are no agreements.

Copyright © 2006 TerraNature Trust. All rights reserved.

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