No Consensus for Moratorium on Bottom Trawling
By Haider Rizvi
Environmentalists hoped an international ban on bottom trawling in the fishing industry would gain ground at a UN meeting. But they will have to wait.
UNITED NATIONS, (Tierramérica).- Several environmental groups are demanding an international moratorium on bottom trawling, a fishing technique that destroys the seabed ecosystems. But the proposal did not win consensus amongst the delegates taking part in a UN conference on fish stocks.
Many participants in the first meeting for review of the 1995 United Nations Agreement on Fish Stocks recognized that bottom-trawling is an issue of concern, but the proved to be indecisive about how to tackle it.
Bottom trawling involves dragging heavy nets along the sea floor. Metal plates and rubber wheels attached to the nets move across the seabed and crush nearly everything in their path, according to the international environmental watchdog Greenpeace.
The group says that at least 200 vessels from 11 countries practice this type of fishing, and the species living in the sea depths take decades, and even centuries, to recover.
"There are many proposals to put a limit on their capacity (vessels with bottom-crawlers)... At the ministerial level, we have heard many calls for action," said David Balton, U.S. representative and chairman of the UN conference, held May 22-26 at the UN headquarters in New York.
But he noted that the stronger measures that have been put forward so far to combat illegal fishing are mainly confined to satellite tracking systems of fishing vessels and strict controls at ports.
"Pirate fishing is a global problem that requires a global solution," said Sari Tolvanen, of Greenpeace, in a statement urging the world community to endorse an immediate UN ban on all high seas bottom trawling.
The group released a new report on May 23 detailing the activities of five high seas fishing trawlers that continue to make safe havens of European harbors at the expense of vulnerable deep sea life, despite being blacklisted by the European Union and North Atlantic Fisheries Commission last year.
The report points out that over the past six months the blacklisted trawlers changed their names and flags and received services in Germany, Lithuania, and Poland before sailing back to their old fishing grounds.
Greenpeace also said it found 64 vessels fishing in the international waters of the Irminger Sea in the North Atlantic, an area known as habitat for cold water corals.
Nevertheless, opponents of the proposed moratorium say there is no scientific study to prove that bottom trawling is having adverse impacts on marine ecosystems.
"It makes no sense," said Javier Garat Pérez, vice president of the International Coalition of Fisheries Association, which represents industry's interests. "It's not a solution," he told Tierramérica, adding that instead of placing a ban on bottom trawling, governments should be taking more steps to curb illegal fishing.
But those concerned about the impact of fishing vessels with bottom crawling equipment disagree.
"While the science is being done, we don't know fully what the effects are," Harlan Cohen of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), an environmental group that closely works with the UN, said in a Tierramerica interview. He said his group supports the idea of an interim prohibition.
Delegates also seem to hold diverse opinions on whether regional efforts could prove a better alternative to placing an international moratorium on bottom trawling.
The UN conference focused on efforts to strengthen the 1995 UN Agreement on Fish Stocks, which aims to ensure responsible fishing of highly migratory and other resources which straddle the boundaries between national jurisdiction and the high seas.
So far only 56 countries have signed this agreement, while six of the world's top 10 fish producing countries, including Japan and China, remain outside the accord.
"The level of participation needs to grow to give the agreement broader support," said David Doulman, of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in a statement, which also stressed the need for increased assistance to developing countries to meet their obligations under the agreement.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace thinks that "global nature of fishing piracy" suggests that no individual government actions could prove effective in the absence of an internationally agreed moratorium on bottom trawling.
The group is considering launching a new campaign in favor of its demand for moratorium by gathering a million signatures by the end of February 2007.
* Haider Rizvi is a Tierramérica contributor.