I recently read a very comprehensive, just published, scientific paper, Sustainability of Deep-sea Fisheries, in preparation for a Greenpeace contribution on the United Nations Deep Sea Fisheries Workshop this week. The paper provides an excellent overview of the issues surrounding the exploitation of deep sea fish stocks and particularly why the ecology of the deep sea – fish with a late maturity age, low fecundity and a low productivity environment – makes most of them unsuitable for sustainable exploitation. In other words, the only way to exploit most of these long-lived species in a profitable manner is to deplete them. This raises the question: should we interpret the activity as deep-sea fishing or deep-sea mining?
The authors of the paper point out that such low productivity is an inconvenient truth for managers, countries, regional fisheries organizations and UN bodies themselves and ask whether they will choose to overlook such an inconvenience. A clear answer must be found between now and November, as members of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) negotiate a new resolution on sustainable fisheries. In doing so, they will have to review whether fishing States who are bottom fishing on the high seas have implemented the measures that the UNGA called for in two previous resolutions agreed in 2006 and 2009.
Deadlines have not been respected. The 2006 Resolution called on States to take concrete actions to ensure the sustainability of deep sea fisheries by 31 December 2008 at the latest. These actions were far from sufficiently taken and the 2009 resolution called again on countries to apply the measures.
Yet, here we are again, learning that most countries still haven't done what they agreed to do and deep-fish populations are increasingly depleted. You can find details of this failure here.
The simple reality is that since 2006 we have continued to lose genetic diversity of great value and habitats that took thousands of years to form. We’ve been hearing from scientists that it will take decades or centuries for impacted deep-sea ecosystems to recover. And some may never recover!
Some high seas bottom fishing nations and the fishing industry have explained this morning how – in their own view – they have already accomplished a great deal and that much progress has been made in regional fisheries management organizations (‘RFMOs’). But in reality, these organizations are composed of fishing States which means that getting them to agree to a precautionary approach to fishing is like getting the driver of a Ferrari to be happy with a maximum speed limit of 50 kilometers per hour!
Responsible deep-sea fisheries management may be possible in some cases, however, the very limited progress that has been made to date is mostly the result of the pressure generated by the resolutions adopted by the UNGA. Without it, our high seas' biodiversity would be in worse shape. The high seas are part of our collective global commons so they don't belong to a single country. As such, their future should not be in the hands of just a few countries with an economic interest in their exploitation—just 10 nations are responsible for 80% of the high seas deep-sea bottom fishing! (1) Thankfully, these 10 states have to face a second inconvenient truth – that we all have a say in who fishes and how they fish in the global commons.
I hope and urge the UNGA to call on all countries to ensure the sustainable exploitation of deep-sea fisheries or otherwise immediately cease their fishing activities. To help us achieve this, you can sign the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition petition. Given the multiple threats the oceans are subject to, be it overfishing, oceans acidification, climate change or pollution, the UNGA oversight is crucial. Hopefully delegates will send a strong message that the UN agreements on the deep sea have to be respected. It would be a strong signal from the international community and a strong precedent to further the work to protect our oceans.
(1) A great deal of deep-sea fishing is what is called 'high seas bottom fishing'. High seas bottom fishing States include, among others, Australia, China, France, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, the Russian Federation and South Korea.