It was in St. John’s, Newfoundland – a little over a decade ago – that I began to get involved in efforts to protect areas of the high seas from the impacts of bottom trawling.

Bottom trawling is an industrial scale fishing method, which uses huge nets with heavy chains, metal 'doors' to keep the net open, and rollers that scour the seafloor, destroying everything in their path. It has been compared to clear cutting a forest to catch a few squirrels. Newfoundland is the beautiful, iconic, windswept, rock in eastern Canada, with adjacent waters once home to some of the most abundant fish stocks in the world.

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Through decades of overfishing – which started in earnest following World War II when factory trawlers pushed aside smaller fishing vessels and the sailing fleets –  Canada, and other countries, managed to decimate not only the cod stocks, but much of the fragile ocean floor through destructive fishing practices. The establishment of the 200-mile limit in 1979 meant that foreign vessels could no longer fish within these waters, and were relegated to areas outside national boundaries – an area classified as the high seas and subject to international law. 

To implement the UN resolutions, countries needed to work together through structures called ‘Regional Fisheries Management Organisations’ or RFMOs.

International law is governed by treaties between States – tracking adherence to international law is difficult at the best of times, let alone on the high seas, which is out of sight and mind for most of the world. Getting international laws in place to govern these international waters takes a very long time and is a huge challenge. A new report by the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition makes it clear that while there are areas that are now protected from bottom trawling, there is much still to be done.

Scientists have been studying the impacts of bottom trawling on seafloor creatures including cold-water corals, sponges and seamount ecosystems, since the late 1980s, and raising the alarm over its impacts. Political action to address the impacts of bottom trawling on high seas marine life only began at the United Nations in 2002 and by 2004, calls for a complete halt to high seas bottom trawling were coming from countries, civil society and over 1000 scientists around the world. 

Getting international laws in place to govern these international waters takes a very long time and is a huge challenge.

It took years of campaigning and advocacy, through concerted efforts by a broad spectrum of over 70 organisations making up the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, and the courage of many countries for the United Nations General Assembly, to adopt a resolution which specifically laid out how these bottom fisheries should be conducted on the high seas. 

This included fully protecting vulnerable deep sea ecosystems from this type of fishing and requiring prior environmental impact assessments to identify if there are areas that need protecting before the fishing takes place. To implement the UN resolutions, countries needed to work together through structures called ‘Regional Fisheries Management Organisations’ or RFMOs, which they have set up to manage high seas fisheries in different ocean basins. 

Getting international laws in place to govern these international waters takes a very long time and is a huge challenge. The UN resolutions also set up a review mechanism so that countries and RFMOs have to come back to the UN every few years to show their compliance with the resolutions. This is absolutely key, because the high seas belong to all of us, they are part of our global commons, and these reviews make sure that those who are fishing in these waters are held accountable by the General Assembly – the international body where every single country has an equal vote – if they have not complied with its resolutions.

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A report by the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition makes it clear that while there are areas that are now protected from bottom trawling, there is much still to be done. Widely distributed species that don’t form concentrations on the seafloor remain at risk. Long-lived deep sea fish species that once exploited have little chance of recovery remain incredibly vulnerable to this fishing method. More has to be done to assess the cumulative impacts and recovery potential of vulnerable species following decades of trawling.

At the UN, countries have another opportunity to again listen to the science and complete the work they started a decade ago: to protect deep-sea life in the high seas by stopping high seas bottom trawling. There are few better places in the world than Newfoundland that demonstrate such a clear case to act quickly, to fix past mistakes, and to protect areas for an abundant future. 

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