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Historic Proposal to Ban Deep-Sea Bottom Trawling

July 24, 2012

The EU Commission has put forward a historic proposal to completely ban all deep-sea bottom trawling in the Northeast Atlantic by EU vessels. You can find more on that news item here.  And check out this blog tomorrow for a review of the EU proposal.

For me this is really exciting as I previously had the honor of working on the Pew Environment Group’s Protect the Deep Sea Campaign and a white paper that systematically outlined the failings of the EU’s deep-sea management regime.

And I’m also excited to see our group’s data findings used and repeated by the EU Commission. We worked with several datasets to put together some really interesting numbers.  The ICES/Eurostat database for 1950–2010 was used to obtain reported catches for all countries fishing for deep-sea species in the northeast Atlantic. And then the value of the EU’s 2010 deep-sea landings were estimated using the EU’s Eurostat database and data contained in a leaked 2009 European Commission review of regulation 2347/2002, which covers deep-sea fishing.

What do you need to know about European and global deep-sea fishing?    Here are some of the key findings from the above linked white paper.

1. The European Union is a major deep-sea player.

The European Union’s deep-sea fishing fleet is one of the largest in the world. In the northeast Atlantic – home to some of the most heavily exploited deep-sea fish stocks – the EU is responsible for 75 percent of the total regional catch of deep-sea species. The EU is also a major player in high seas bottom fishing – an activity that frequently targets deep-sea species. The EU has an estimated 103 vessels conducting high seas bottom fishing, which is approximately one-third of the high seas bottom fishing fleet globally. Given its size, the EU is uniquely poised to significantly improve the sustainability of deep-sea fishing and reduce negative impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs)… [bold added]

2. EU Deep-Sea Fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic are in a terrible state.

EU fisheries management has been unable to stop overfishing in most of its fisheries, including deep-sea fisheries. According to the European Commission, 63 percent of ‘known’ EU stocks are overfished. This is far worse than the situation facing fisheries globally, where 32 percent of the world’s fish stocks are overfished, depleted, or recovering from depletion. Though exact estimates for EU deep-sea fisheries are unavailable, leading scientific authorities have ruled that all of these deep-sea fisheries are ‘outside safe biological limits’ and that fishing should be reduced or ended entirely.

3. The EU’s Deep-Sea Fisheries are economically unimportant.

That this recommendation [see preceding excerpt] has not been followed is particularly concerning as deep-sea species are relatively unimportant to the EU economy – deep-sea species represent just 1.3 percent of the total value of EU fishery product landings and 1.2 percent of the EU’s entire northeast Atlantic catch. [bold added]

Further, while not covered in the paper, much of the EU deep-sea fleet might operate at a loss without heavy subsidies. The EU has made it clear that most of its trawlers depend heavily on subsidies to stay in business.

4. Deep-sea fisheries aren’t all that important globally either.

This is a minor figure in the Pew white paper but one that I really enjoyed putting together. The reality is the global deep-sea catch has not been logically computed, so we attempted to do this.  Here’s what was reported in the white paper.

Various estimates reveal that deep-sea species comprise between 2 and 4 percent of the global marine catch. An FAO report published in 2002 reviewed trends in reported catches of oceanic and deep-sea fish species from 1950–1999. The report estimated that by 1999, approximately 2 million tonnes of fish were caught annually below 200m (in the mesopelagic and bathypelagic zones as opposed to the epipelagic zone), which represented 2.4 percent of the global marine catch. In addition, approximately 50 percent of the deep-sea catch since 1975 has consisted of a single species, blue whiting (Micromesistius poutassou), taken in a mid-water trawl fishery in the North Atlantic. In a FAO Technical Paper published in 2006, Sissenwine and Mace note that blue whiting does not fit the common definition of ‘deep-sea species’ as the species is relatively fast growing and early maturing – traits typical of shallow-water species.

A separate analysis conducted for the 2003 World Conference on Deep-Sea Fishing found that about 4 percent of world catches are taken from deep-sea species, including blue whiting, scabbardfish, grenadiers, redfish, orange roughy, Greenland halibut, and argentines. Again, blue whiting figured prominently.

Finally, a more recent estimate may be constructed for the 76 deep-sea species and species groups in the FAO Reported Landings Database, as identified in a 2005 FAO Technical Paper. In 2009, these species and species groups accounted for 3.3 million tonnes, or 4.1 percent of the global catch. However, it is important to note that blue whiting and largehead hairtail (Trichiurus lepturus) accounted for more than one-half of the estimate. Similar to blue whiting, Sissenwine & Mace note that largehead hairtail has characteristics more consistent with shallow-water species. Removing these species, the remaining 74 deep-sea species and species groups would account for just 1.7 percent of the global catch of all fish species. [bold added]

And like the EU’s trawlers, most deep-sea bottom trawling fleets would operate at a loss without subsidies.

5. The Management of EU Deep-Sea Fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic is pretty awful.  (No, really, prepare yourself!)

It is unclear how successful the fishing permit scheme has been due to significant reporting problems. A review by the Commission in 2007 found that only Spain and Portugal had provided lists of vessels holding deep-sea permits. This is in spite of the fact that all Member States with deep-sea fishing vessels are required by law to do so…

According to the Commission, the maximum limit on effort “has probably had no effect.” The methodology used for calculating maximum effort resulted in effort ceilings that “are unrealistically high and do not restrict the number of vessels targeting deep-sea species.”

The Commission admits that it does not yet know what level of effort would result in sustainable catches of deep-sea species, and that full application of the precautionary approach would have required a much greater effort restriction, if not fishery closures: “The lack of basic knowledge on the biology of deep-sea species and of the deep-sea ecosystem means that the TAC (total allowable catch) and effort limitations that were fixed were somewhat arbitrary. Full compliance with the precautionary approach would have required the setting of much lower TACs and effort limits, or even the closure of the fisheries.” …

It is recognised that regulation 2347/2002 is deficient in its provisions for port surveillance as no guidelines were given for surveillance and inspection procedures. The Commission found that landings of deep-sea species are “sometimes considered to be of lower priority,” yet deep-sea species are among the most vulnerable of marine species targeted by fishing activities…

There is also evidence of rampant misreporting. A 2008 analysis of fishing catches in the NEAFC regulatory area, where EU deep-sea vessels operate, revealed that only 27 percent of vessels that transmitted VMS data had ever reported a catch.

The Commission’s review of deep-sea catch limits found that they “have probably had some effect in curbing fishing mortality on some of the main targeted species.” However, the effect has been far from sufficient. In 2010, ICES estimated that 100 percent of all deep-sea fisheries are ‘outside safe biological limits.’…

The Commission notes that VMS data for deep-sea vessels are poorly monitored and that local inspectors are not informed of any suspicious activities: “Alarms at the Fisheries Monitoring Centres (FMC) are generally not set to give an automatic warning when a fishing vessel is fishing or is in transit in regulated areas. This means that although technically possible, the FMCs do not keep the local inspectors informed of any suspicious activities by specific vessels on the fishing ground. If this was done, it would allow such vessels to be targeted by inspectors when they arrived in port.”

Again, see back here on this blog tomorrow for a review of the EU Commission’s Deep-Sea Proposal.

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