Underwater Mountains Threatened by Fishing, According to New Report

Conservation Groups Call For International Moratorium on High Seas Bottom Trawling

UNITED NATIONS (June 7, 2004) - A new report says unsustainable fishing practices threaten some of the planet's most diverse biological hotspots, underwater mountains called seamounts. Seamounts support distinctive and little-known species, that are especially vulnerable to commercial trawl nets, which scrape the ocean bottom in search of fish. The report was released at a U.N. conference, during which conservation groups called for a moratorium on bottom trawling in international waters.

"Seamounts harbor some of the planet's richest biodiversity, an array of species that includes life forms thought to be extinct since the time of the dinosaurs, the deepest known plants, and corals that are the longest lived animals on earth," said Dr. Daniel Pauly, co-editor of the report and director of the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

Dr. Pauly assembled an international group of scientists to complete the most comprehensive analysis ever of seamounts and their life. The report, "Seamounts: Biodiversity and Fisheries," found that seamount species are more vulnerable to fishing than any other type of fish. It shows that seamount fisheries are unsustainable, discovering and depleting their target species in a matter of a few years. Moreover, depleted seamount fisheries have not recovered even decades after fishing ceased.

Seamounts dot the bottom of the world's oceans and, like true islands, they are geographically isolated, resulting in high numbers of species that are found nowhere else. They support abundant sponges, anemones and corals in fragile, tree-like forms that are easily damaged by bottom trawls. The world's seamounts number from 14,000 to as many as 50,000, yet less than 1 percent have been studied.

About half of all seamounts are located in international waters and are completely unprotected from bottom trawling. At a meeting this week of the United Nations Informal Consultative Process on the Law of the Sea (UNICPOLOS), a coalition of conservation groups called on delegates to back a U.N. resolution to prohibit high seas bottom trawling until seamounts and deep water corals can be assessed scientifically and a regulatory regime is put in place to protect them.

"We've touched only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discovering the diversity of life in the deep sea," said Lisa Speer, co-director of the Ocean Protection Initiative at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), a U.S. conservation group. "Without international protection, we risk wiping out whole ocean ecosystems and the species they support before they've even been discovered."

Another study released simultaneously at the U.N. meeting spelled more trouble for seamounts. The study by Matthew Gianni, a former fisherman turned fisheries expert, found that bottom trawlers are increasingly targeting the undersea mountains and their rich diversity of marine life.