EU proposal for ban on deep sea trawling makes uncertain progress

Fish2Fork reports, 5th September 2013: “A marine expert has accused the fishing industry of talking “bunk” in its efforts to stop deep sea trawling being banned. Professor Les Watling, of the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, hit out at the industry as moves to ban deep sea trawling and deep sea gill-netting enter a critical phase in the European Union.

Deep sea trawling is, he said, “the most destructive form of deep sea fishing in the world”. It involves dragging heavy equipment over the sea bed “at high speed” which, while effective at catching fish, is “indiscriminate and leaves behind a trail of rubble” in some of the most fragile and little understood habitats in the oceans.

Corals & Sponges

How light would fishing equipment need to be for these delicate corals and sponges to survive trawling?
Alberto Lindner, NOAA/Marine Photobank

The European Commission wants to ban deep sea trawling and gill-netting but it has faced opposition in the European Parliament’s fisheries committee (PECH) which has already delayed the proposals, despite strong support from the bigger Environment Committee which earlier this year voted 58 to 1 in favour of a ban. Negotiations are taking place among MEPs as they seek to reach an agreement on whether a ban should be imposed and to what extent it should apply.

The industry is hoping to win enough support to delay or block the proposals while environmental groups are anxious to push them through. Both sides are aware that with Parliamentary elections being held in 2014 there is limited time to get legislation through all the stages it has to pass to be enacted. Similarly, European Commissioners are approaching the end of their terms, leaving it uncertain if a deep sea trawling ban will return to the agenda if it fails to be passed this time.

Professor Watling, an expert on deep sea wildlife and habitats, believes a ban would “give the seas some breathing space and fish stocks a chance to recover” and said: “Deep-water trawling should be consigned to history.”

orange roughy, a deep sea species

European stocks of orange roughy, a deep sea species, have collapsed. Picture credit: Claire Nouvian

The industry has been lobbying against a ban and, says Prof. Watling, it has been relying on a series of incorrect assertions to influence the debate. He was also concerned that some members of the fisheries committee have ties to the fishing sector which he believes has already enabled the industry to slow the pace of reform.In an article published by one of the world’s the leading science journals, Nature, he challenged the industry’s claims and said: “Science has been dragged into the political fight.

The fishing lobby has published a series of influential pamphlets that start with the famous phrase “the inconvenient truth”. In essence, the pamphlets suggest that it is possible to use a lighter version of trawling equipment to trawl in the deep sea without doing much damage; that stocks of the target species are not being depleted; and that non-target catch is made up of just a few abundant species that are not in any kind of trouble.

“Many of the ‘truths’ listed are quoted by European politicians” says Prof. Watling. “Yet they are bunk. If the European Parliament passes the ban, it will have global force and influence on conservation. As such, responsible scientists cannot let these claims go unchallenged.”

Among the industry claims he hoped to debunk was the assertion that damage to these bed can be reduced by use of lighter equipment. With trawls operating at 800 to 1,500 metres deep at speeds of at least 3 knots (5.6 kmp) he said the equipment has to be heavy, adding: “Deep-sea organisms are known to be delicate and fragile, often consisting of as much water as tissue. By analogy, it makes no difference if you are run over by a small car that weighs one tonne or a large truck that weighs several tonnes. The flesh of the body is no match for the strength of steel, however light the equipment.”

Tripod fish, a deep sea species

Tripod fish, a deep sea species. Picture credit: NOAA

He challenged industry claims that the fishing is at sustainable levels by pointing out that the catch data is biased because it comes mainly from the fishing industry which will avoid areas that have been fished out. He said catches have fallen to 20 per cent of their peak levels and that too little is known of the deep water habitat to be certain of what it can stand, warning: “Fishing could cause a complete collapse.” On the assertion that by-catch is limited and that by-catch species are not in trouble, he said studies suggest more than 100 species are netted in trawls with just three target species.

He added: “Reported catch of the non-commercially valuable Baird’s slickhead (Alepocephalus bairdii), for example, which accounts for more than one-third of by-catch by weight, have declined precipitously, and are now at about 6% of their 2002 high. This decline would be enough for the fish to be classed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.”

In the article he identified links between the fish industry and MEPs as a reason for slow progress towards a ban: “The EU Fisheries Committee features Members of the European Parliament from French, UK and Spanish areas in which deep sea vessels are docked. These ties have slowed the Committee’s consideration of the proposed ban to a crawl.”

Source: Fish2Fork, 5th September 2013, http://www.fish2fork.com/en/news-index/2013/Justification-of-deep-sea-trawling-is-bunk-MEPs-told.aspx

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