To offset smaller catches, trawlers fish in deeper waters and destroy species unknown to scientists.
“If what is happening on the deep sea floors was occurring on land, there would be such great public indignation that it would stop immediately”. Along with other scientists, some States and several NGOs, Sylvia Earle, from the organisation Conservation International demands a moratorium on deep-sea fishing – a proposition that is categorically refused by the European Union. Her goal is to have this activity immediately ceased for the time that it takes to study its impact on the immense and still unexplored ecological resources of the deep sea.
Razed Sea Floors
Although scientists started difficult and costly research on these ecosystems only around ten years ago, they have already observed immense damage to the “cold-water corals”. These cousins of the massive tropical corals are attached to the sides of underwater mountains found at depths of 200 to more than 1000 metres deep. “We estimate that 50% of corals off the coasts of Norway have already been destroyed, before even being discovered by scientists,” explains Alex Rogers, a researcher with the British Antarctic Survey. Those responsible: the huge trawlers used to scrape the seafloor, which can weigh up to 30 tons when full; their mass destroys between 95-98% of corals in their path, destroying the habitat necessary for deep water survival. “It is similar to using bulldozers to catch squirrels in the forest,” exclaims Sylvia Earle.
Fishermen, pushed by the decline in halieutic resources, look increasingly deeper for new crustaceans, but also for fish such as the orange roughy, the rock grenadier, the black scabbard fish, and the redfish … all generally foods of choice.
Their trawlers can dredge at a depth of 1500 metres: a cold universe without light where life evolves slowly. Some of these corals were born 10,000 years ago, and a fish such as an orange roughy lives 150 years. “Imagine that, on your plate, you have a creature that is older than your grandmother,” sighs Lisa Speer, an analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. For his part, Alex Rogers estimates that these animals, which only reproduce starting at 30-40 years of age, could disappear soon, due to overfishing. A large reserve of roughy, discovered in 1999 off the coasts of South Africa and Madagascar, was exterminated in four years of exploitation by around fifty ships.
Fish are not the only organisms put in danger by this practice. No one can estimate the exact number of species living on the cold water corals: Five hundred thousand? One million? The majority are still unknown. “These ecosystems resemble underwater Galapagos. These mountains are separated from each other by large distances and powerful currents. We estimate that between 10-40% of species that develop there exist nowhere else. Thus, when a reef disappears, thousands of species can suddenly be eliminated from the planet,” explains Matthew Gianni, author of a report on deep-sea fishing.
He compares the destruction of corals to the disappearance of the Amazon forest. This is a devastation that only profits select diners of America, Europe and Japan. “They do not nourish the millions of people that need it, but simply feed a very narrow luxury market,” emphasizes Sylvia Earle. The catches represent less than 0.2% of the total fish consumed worldwide. “A minority of fishermen are destroying this common resource, to benefit a very small part of the population,” summarizes Matthew Gianni.
Hope for a Moratorium
The majority of this fishing takes place in international waters, where no regulations apply. Only the UN could have the moral power to urge the countries to accept a moratorium. The General Assembly of The World Conservation Union just adopted, in Bangkok, a resolution calling on the States to take measures to protect the deep seas. “It is a step forward, but falls a little short because what we need is a true moratorium,” asserts Lisa Speer, of the National Resources Defense Council. The main obstacle to bypass is the categorical opposition of the European Union, where more than 70% of the boats practicing this type of fishing originate. Spain alone constitutes 40% of the global fleet.