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April/May 2007
Bulldozing the Ocean Floors
By Andrea Gordon



Far below the ocean’s surface is a magical world, home to some of the most densely concentrated and varied life on the planet. Like fairy-tale forests, networks of coral shelter fuzzy white crabs, brightly colored sponges and fish that generate their own bioluminescent headlights.

For millennia, these submarine worlds peacefully existed, unseen by human eyes and unblemished by human contact. But bottom trawling has ended that. Deep sea life is currently being demolished at a breathtaking rate by the most destructive industrial fishing method. Bottom trawling differs from other industrial fishing methods, such as long lining, because it permanently destroys entire ecosystems, not just individual species or regional stocks. For the first time, the price of a fish dinner may include the extinction of an entire ecosystem.

Ocean Oases
Cold water coral primarily exists on underwater mountains or on certain islands, such as the Galapagos, which are seamounts that have risen above the ocean’s surface. At least a third of species discovered on seamounts are endemic, existing only on that particular seamount, earning these cold water coral reefs the nickname “the Galapagos of the Deep.”

Like their tropical counterparts, cold water coral provide critical spawning and nursery groups for myriad animals. In a vast ocean, seamounts attract all types of ocean visitors for food and rest during long distance migrations. Turtles, whales, tuna and sharks all congregate around these ocean oases. Unfortunately for these animals, an increasing human population with a voracious appetite for seafood has driven fishing ships deeper in search of pristine fish stocks.

Wastelands
Bottom trawling drags heavy steel rollers attached to nets—as big as 15 double-decker buses side-by-side—over the ocean floor to catch the few commercially viable fish species living on deep ocean seamounts, such as orange roughy and monkfish. The nets, however, indiscriminately scoop up all sea life in the area.

Unlike other fishing methods, bottom trawling obliterates all coral, sponges and other stationary life in its path. In a matter of seconds, deep sea bottom trawlers can vanquish 10,000 year-old coral reefs that only grow at a mere 2.5 cm per year. Annually, trawlers fish an area roughly twice the size of the continental U.S. Pictures taken before and after bottom trawlers barrel through reveal that areas once teeming with life quickly become barren graveyards and wastelands.

Industrial fishing ships only keep the commercially viable fish species, lest other fish take up valuable freezer space on the ships. For every ton of fish trawlers keep, another ton of animals are caught and killed by the nets alone. This discard, or bycatch, may include endangered species such as black coral, listed on CITES since 1981, as well as sharks and smaller fish.

A Greedy Price to Pay
Astonishingly, only a few wealthy countries and about 200 ships worldwide are responsible for this ecological destruction. According to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, an alliance leading the war against bottom trawling, 11 countries claim responsibility for 95 percent of high seas bottom trawling. These countries are: Spain (40 percent of total catch), Russia, Portugal, Norway, Estonia, Denmark/Faroe Islands, Japan, Lithuania, Iceland, New Zealand and Latvia. The majority of the non-discarded catch ends up on plates in the EU, U.S. and Japan as very expensive meals.

The total high seas bottom trawl fish catch in 2001 was a mere one-fifth to one-quarter of one percent of the 84 million tons globally. Nor is the catch particularly profitable. High seas bottom trawling is only worth approximately $300-400 million annually, compared to the $135 billion value of global fishing production. Because bottom trawling has few economic incentives that benefit already wealthy countries, it creates the ideal situation for international cooperation to ban bottom trawling. Unfortunately, preventing the certain extinction of entire ecosystems does not seem to be worth a few million dollars.

The majority of bottom trawling occurs on the high seas and is therefore not regulated under existing international law. An immediate moratorium, or voluntary global ban, on bottom trawling is the most effective solution. Precedence exists for such a moratorium. In the early 90s, the UN implemented a moratorium on driftnet fishing, or monofilament nets called “walls of death” for indiscriminately catching any animal unfortunate enough to swim into one.

The UN General Assembly failed to ratify a moratorium on bottom trawling in 2004 and 2005 due to the objections of a few wealthy countries. Last November, Iceland, a country with a population of only about 300,000 people, devastatingly blocked the moratorium in the last moments of negotiations, ensuring bottom trawling would continue unabated for at least another year. As a result, the UN only verbally requested countries to regulate the bottom trawling practices of their own vessels.

Taking Action
While the UN may be all talk and no action, other organizations have taken on the challenge of protecting the deep sea.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society deployed heavy steel devices with net-ripping blades to guard against illegal trawling off the tail of the Grand Banks. Greenpeace tracked and identified some of the most notorious bottom trawling vessels, such as the Chang Xing, and chained the propellers on pirate trawlers to prevent them from leaving port. Domestically, Oceana litigated protection for hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean in the Northern Pacific. The Nature Conservancy has taken a different approach, offering buyouts to bottom trawling vessels and purchasing commercial trawling permits.

A Perfect Ocean
History and the current damaged state of the world’s fisheries provide invaluable guidance for creating marine policies.

The commercial fishing industry will deny the finite vulnerability of deep sea life until their nets, and pockets, return empty. Blame will be cast. It will not bring back the fish or the coral reefs.

The question should not be how much we can sustainably steal from the ocean, but as marine scientist Daniel Pauly asks, how can we have “a perfect ocean”? Recent video of deep sea hydrothermal vents illuminates quantities of crabs and shrimp so densely abundant, one might mistake a crab-covered vent for a single organism. Thus, the deep sea provides a rare snapshot of the natural richness and abundance of life that was once the norm throughout the oceans.

Practical, achievable solutions are easily within reach. Bottom trawling presents not just another issue to be consigned to the list of ways humankind has plundered the oceans, but the opportunity to change history’s course and prevent the orange roughy from going the way of the Yangtze River dolphin. At the current rate of destruction, that window of opportunity will close forever within our lifetimes. Therefore, the choice belongs to our generation alone.

Andrea Gordon had the honor of serving the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society during their bottom trawling campaign. Currently, she is practicing law in New York. She will never rest until all of the Earth’s inhabitants enjoy the right to be left alone and encourages everyone to be their own hero.

 

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