As UN Meets, Scientists Spotlight Lawless Fishing Crisis

UNITED NATIONS (Tuesday, October 3) -- Actress Sigourney Weaver today joined a coalition representing more than 60 conservation organizations from around the world at United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York to call for new action to confront lawless bottom trawling in deep sea fisheries, a practice scientists say is destroying some of the world's rarest and most sensitive ocean habitats.

"The oceans that millions of people around the world depend on for sustenance and livelihood are being plundered while the world sits by and watches. Some of the oldest ecosystems on Earth are being destroyed," Weaver said. "Most people think somebody somewhere is looking out for the deep oceans, but they aren't. These deep sea trawlers are operating beyond the reach of the law. It's up to all of us to change that."

The event, sponsored by the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), comes a day before representatives of UN member states gather to negotiate protections for vanishing deep sea ecosystems. The groups say delegates are under unprecedented pressure to tackle the problem.

"The UN has been debating this issue for three years while the problem keeps getting worse," said Lisa Speer of the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), a DSCC member. "Fleets ply vast areas of open ocean beyond the reach of any national jurisdiction, and they are doing irreparable damage to some of the oldest and most unique ecosystems on earth."

Action by the General Assembly (GA) had been delayed pending the outcome of a review by members of the GA of measures already taken. The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, published a report summarising such measures in July 2006 and concluded that little had been done to protect vulnerable deep sea ecosystems on the high seas. It found that: "Many fisheries are not managed until they are over-exploited and clearly depleted and, because of the high vulnerability of deep-sea species to exploitation and their low potential for recovery, this is of particular concern for these stocks. This raises the question of the urgent need for interim measures in particular circumstances, pending the adoption of conservation and management regimes."

Calling for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling, the DSCC and Weaver were joined by the UN Ambassadors from Australia, New Zealand and Palau, who are championing new protections, and Ellen Pikitch, the executive director of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science at the University of Miami.

The high seas cover more than half the planet's surface, constituting a global commons that is increasingly recognized as a priceless reservoir of biodiversity. Scientists probing once-unreachable depths in recent years have discovered sprawling coral reefs, and chemical compounds that hold promise for the treatment of human diseases like cancer and asthma.

Karen Sack of Greenpeace International, also a member of the DSCC, added, "the UN has the power to protect the irreplaceable ecosystems of the deep sea bed from the relentless march of bottom trawlers. "If it fails to act, it would be closing its eyes and allowing these unknown worlds to be destroyed before we fully understand all the life they contain-like blowing up Mars before we get there."

The extraordinary cold and depth of the high seas means that marine species grow and reproduce much more slowly than in warmer coastal seas. Instead of life cycles that span a few months or years, deep-sea fish like orange roughy can live 125 years. Deep water coral reefs can live for eight thousand years. Scientists warn these slow-growing species cannot readily recover from over-fishing.

Brazil, the UK, South Africa, Australia, Chile, France, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany and many Pacific Island nations are among those that have called for a halt to unregulated high seas bottom trawling. Spain, Russia and Iceland lead the opposition.

This week's negotiations will effectively determine how the UN GA will decide the issue when it meets in November.

The DSCC is a coalition of over 60 conservation and environmental organizations around the world, calling for a moratorium (interim prohibition) on high seas bottom trawling.