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Home > Environmental issues > Article > 

Government response to bottom trawling is not good enough:
An immediate moratorium is needed

26 September 2004
Deepsea fisheries: Scientists call
for deepsea coral protection
  16 Feb 2004

Fisheries Minister David Benson-Pope, Conservation Minister Chris Carter, and Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Jim Sutton, have announced a strategy to improve the protection of deep-sea biodiversity, and address the threat of bottom trawling.

Government recognition of the loss of deepsea biodiversity is a step forward, however, it is a very compromised response that is too little, too late, and too vague.

Destruction of life on the seafloor has been going on for so long, and at such a rate, that an immediate moratorium is necessary.

"Bottom trawling can take a heavy toll on marine life in vulnerable areas and it is in everybody's interests to improve management of the practice throughout the world," the Ministers said.

The Ministers claim the most practical solution to the global bottom trawling problem is better management in the high seas.

In cooperation with Australia, New Zealand has now identified the need for a regional management framework to control fishing, and the two countries are working to identify areas for protection in the Tasman Sea.  The Ministers did not mention that discussions on regional agreement with Australia have actually been going on for a decade.

New Zealand would take a leadership role in promoting improved capacity and geographic reach of regional fisheries management organisations so that the effects of bottom trawling could be addressed, the Ministers said.

New Zealand would also seek to work with other countries in the region and internationally to improve biodiversity protection of the high seas and develop practical, enforceable outcomes, they said.

Deepsea bottom trawling is the environmental crime of the 21st century, comparable to destruction of old-growth terrestrial forests.

Just how genuine are the Government's intentions?  Conspicuously absent from the Ministers' statement, is any action to address bottom trawling within the New Zealand Exclusive Economic Zone.

The statement does not refer to the Indian Ocean, where New Zealand vessels have been operating. A regional agreement has been in negotiation since 2001, while orange roughy has become overfished.

The statement also lacks any reference to the previously, widely promoted Government objective to protect 10 percent of New Zealand waters in marine reserves.

Apart from a quota management system that has not maintained fish populations, and a ban on fishing from 19 of 800 seamounts, the Government has failed to initiate biodiversity protection measures outside the 12-mile territorial sea, since the EEZ was formed 26 years ago.

Orange roughy haul © GREENPEACE/Grace
View larger image

In 2000, Cabinet agreed to develop an Oceans Policy to ensure integrated and consistent management of the oceans within New Zealand's jurisdiction.  The policy is intended to cover all aspects of oceans management, and would extend to the edge of the EEZ and the Continental Shelf beyond.  Completion of the Oceans Policy is off schedule, and has been further delayed to take into account public access and customary rights to the foreshore and seabed.

Government is acting with piecemeal consideration of ocean issues.  Consolidated action is needed to address fishing quotas and practices, and conservation, in the EEZ and the high seas.

The Ministers say they 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 ..."

New Zealand will gain the credibility it needs to promote actions in other regions to the United Nations, by first getting measures in place within its EEZ, and controlling the fishing methods of New Zealand vessels fishing in the high seas.

The Government must exercise its authority to control New Zealand fishing vessels, both inside and outside its ocean jurisdictional area, before it assumes an international leadership role.

From past experience, we can expect study, negotiation and implementation to take years, while in the meantime, the trawl nets will continue their destruction.

Professor Daniel Pauly who is Director of the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia, predicts the future for global fisheries is not rosy, and advises that governments should be setting aside up to half of fishing grounds as marine reserves to ensure the future of sea life.

Professor Pauly also advocates the end of all bottom trawling, which he says is incredibly damaging to the ecosystem.

UBC's Fisheries Centre maintain a global database on fish.  Professor Pauly says a badly reduced fish stock would require 50 percent of fishing grounds to be declared notake to precipitate full recovery, especially if there was still to be some catch.  If stocks are not badly reduced then 20 to 30 percent may be enough.

See more on Professor Paully's statements

When Greens Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimmons sought support in Parliament for a United Nation's moratorium on bottom trawling, she held up a 5 foot tall piece of coral, and asked Fisheries Minister David Benson-Pope "... is he concerned that New Zealand is one of 11 nations still bottom trawling and that this has obliterated forever this 1,000 year old gorgonian octo-coral"

In reply Mr Benson-Pope said there was no doubt bottom trawling could be destructive "... but the extent of that is the subject of substantial debate ..."

The extent of bottom trawling in New Zealand fisheries is documented by validated catch data held by the Ministry of Fisheries.

The Minister has a responsibility to report the extent of bottom trawling damage to the New Zealand public.

Write to the Minister of Fisheries, David Benson-Pope, to request his disclosure of the extent of bottom trawling.

Send an email to:
or mail to:
The Honorable David Benson-Pope,
Minister of Fisheries
Parliament, Wellington, New Zealand

Photo top: Crynoid, NOAA Fisheries
Crynoids are one of nature's phenomenoms.  It is a deepsea animal with fron-like arms that move to catch food flowing in the ocean current.  The arms of this plant-like creature are attached to a narrow straight trunk, with feet that allow it to move about the seafloor.

Click here or on image to enlarge

Bottom trawling on seamounts

Seamounts are well recognized as areas of high biological productivity and have been the focus of commercial fishing for species that form large aggregations around them.

The most fished species since 1979 has been orange roughy, which spawn and feed on seamounts.

See more on deep-sea fisheries
Rough seas for orange roughy
Seamounts - discovery of a new ocean world

Other species fished on seamounts include oreo and cardinalfish, and to a lesser extent alfonsino, bluenose, and rubyfish.

The catch of orange roughy from seamounts was 30 percent of the total in 1985, and by 1995 had increased to 80 percent.  It has since dropped to 60-70 percent.

There are 800 seamounts covering about 3 percent (121,500 square kilometres) of the New Zealand EEZ.  The area of seamounts is approximately 45 percent of the land area of New Zealand.

NIWA study of deepwater fisheries and impact on seamount habitat .....

National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research (NIWA) research to measure the intensity of trawling, shows that heavy bottom trawl gear has a direct physical impact on the seabed (Clark, O'Driscoll 2003).

Bottom trawling is known to have occurred on 248 seamounts, and about 100 are currently being fished.

The 23 most intensely fished seamounts were trawled 38,517 times from 1979 until 2000.  The length of a trawl is normally 2 to 3km, so the total distance trawled on these seamounts alone was about 100,000 km during the 20-year period.

The Crack seamount on the Chatham Rise had the highest catch during the 20 years leading up to 2000, with 48,442 tonnes of orange roughy.  It was trawled 3,970 times during this period.

It is evident from NIWA camera stations on the Ritchie seamount off the east coast of the North Island, that about half of the seamount area has been damaged.  The peak and upper slopes have suffered the main impact, with heavily marked gouges from bobbins and trawl doors, while there are few marks on the flanks.  The NIWA survey showed very little micro-fauna.

The Ritchie seamount has been fished for orange roughy and cardinalfish since 1986, with 1,244 bottom trawls during 14 years producing a catch of 5,556 tonnes.

Fishing industry claims .....

The Orange Roughy Management Company, claims the fishing industry's footprint on the sea floor is less than 5 percent of the world's 75 percent of ocean, and is adamant seamounts higher than 1,000 metres in the New Zealand EEZ are not fished, because many are inaccessible or too steep or do not have the commercial fish.

For 25 years, the fishing industry has been able to exploit the seabed, out of sight of public scrutiny.  Now, with a greater awareness emerging, the industry is playing down its activity and the destruction caused by bottom trawling.

There is an elementary need for the government to publicly report the extent of trawled seafloor, just as the extent of pastoral, crop and forested land, and other land uses are accounted for.

Entrusting the fishing industry with voluntary measures is not effective protection .....

The government's willingness to entrust the fishing industry with voluntary measures must be questioned, considering the Seafood Industry Council, an industry association, says a ban would be devastating to a $1.2 billion industry of which $800 million comes from exports of fish caught by trawling.

Voluntary measures are reliant on trust, but this is severely lacking with an industry that has a history of deceiving the public.  The Orange Roughy Management Company has previously claimed that it was not fishing outside the New Zealand EEZ, when in fact vessels associated with it were operating in the Tasman Sea and the Indian Ocean.

The Ministry of Fisheries reports that there are 20-30 New Zealand flagged vessels currently involved in the practice in the high seas.  New Zealand is one of 11 countries that take 95 percent of the catch by bottom trawling on the high seas.

While some may accept voluntary measures, there will always be those that do not.  Regulating offenders is one of the principal responsibilies of government.

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