Deep-sea high seas fisheries
Deep-sea fisheries in the high seas are those that take place at great depths and in waters beyond national jurisdiction (such as the exclusive economic zones [EEZs]). The great depths and distances from the coast at which marine living resources are caught by deep-sea fisheries in the high seas pose scientific and technical challenges, particularly in providing scientific support for management.
A number of governmental and non-governmental organizations with mandates relating to conservation of the environment, biodiversity and management of fisheries have expressed concerns about the likely, known or feared consequences of deep-sea fishing in terms of its effects and impacts on target stocks, associated species and habitats. These concerns include the vulnerability of low productivity stocks, vulnerability of the habitats, gaps in the international legal regimes and insufficient coverage by monitoring, control and surveillance.
These concerns are reflected in resolutions adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, in particular United Nations General Assembly Resolution 61/105 which calls on flag States and regional fisheries management organizations or arrangements (RFMO/As) to take action to sustainably manage fish stocks and protect vulnerable marine ecosystems. This resolution and related discussions led to the adoption of specific recommendations by the FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) at its twenty-seventh session, in March 2007, which prompted the subsequent development and adoption of the FAO International Guidelines for the Management of Deep-sea Fisheries in the High Seas (the FAO International Guidelines). The most recent UNGA Resolution (December 2009) continued the discussion on these issues and called on states to implement the FAO International Guidelines.
The FAO International Guidelines
The FAO developed the International Guidelines through a participatory process involving fisheries experts, fishery managers from governments, the fishing industry, academia and non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations. A range of studies and meetings were completed over the period 2006–2008 with a view to informing people about the process and discuss issues such as the definition of vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) and data needs for these fisheries. This process led to the holding of a Technical Consultation where representatives of FAO Members negotiated and adopted the text of the FAO International Guidelines in August 2008.
These guidelines are designed to provide guidance on management factors ranging from an appropriate regulatory framework to the components of a good data collection programme, and include the identification of key management considerations and measures necessary to ensure the conservation of target and non-target species, as well as affected habitats.
In addition, the guidelines set out a management framework to be adopted for the prevention of significant adverse impacts (SAIs) on vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs - see below for more information) and the protection of the marine biodiversity that these ecosystems contain. Once a VME is identified, appropriate management measures must be taken to ensure that significant adverse impacts (SAIs) on the VME do not occur. SAIs, as described in the guidelines, are those that, compromise ecosystem integrity (i.e. ecosystem structure or function) in a manner that:
These guidelines are voluntary and constitute an instrument of reference to help states and RFMO/As in formulating and implementing appropriate measures for the management of deep-sea fisheries in the high seas. Their adoption represents a major step forward in addressing both fisheries management and marine biodiversity conservation in an integrated manner and contributes to the development and strengthening of the applicable legal and institutional framework.
The types of fishing gear and vessels used in deep-sea fisheries vary greatly, depending on the species targeted and their behaviour. In general, these fisheries are conducted at depths between 200-2000m, on continental slopes or isolated oceanic topographic structures such as seamounts, ridge systems and banks. They are characterized by a total catch which comprises species that can only sustain low exploitation rates, although some deep-sea species are highly productive and support larger fisheries, e.g. blue whiting (Micromesistius poutassou), but as the depth of the fishery increases, the number of low productivity species encountered increases. High exploitation rates of more vulnerable species can lead to rapid resource depletion: stock recovery is long and is not assured.
In 2008, FAO carried out a worldwide review of bottom fisheries in the high seas of nine major oceanic regions, compiling the best available information. The review found that, in 2006, approximately 285 vessels were involved in high seas bottom fisheries. The total global catch of these bottom fisheries, based on the catch of approximately 60 species, was estimated to be around 250 000 tonnes for 2006. At least 27 flag states were involved in these fisheries that year according to the review. Some vessels involved in deep-sea fisheries in the high seas may fish exclusively in the high seas, but others also operate within EEZs during the course of the year, either in deep seas or in shallower waters. Most vessels target several species throughout the year and some regularly change fishing gear. These fisheries are competitive and require a high-level of investment.
Vessels authorized to conduct bottom fisheries in areas beyond national jurisdiction
Resolution 61/105 on Sustainable Fisheries was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 6 March 2007. Part of the Resolution relates to the management of bottom fisheries in areas beyond national jurisdiction and calls upon States to submit information on vessels authorized to fish in deep-sea fisheries in areas beyond national jurisdiction to FAO.
87. Further calls upon States to make publicly available through the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations a list of those vessels flying their flag authorized to conduct bottom fisheries in areas beyond national jurisdiction, and the measures they have adopted pursuant to paragraph 86 of the present resolution;
The DSF authorized vessel dynamic web site contains information provided by States pursuant to paragraph 87 of Resolution 61/105.
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Vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs)
During the course of deep-sea fishing activities, gears are often used that can, in the normal course of operation, come into contact with the sea floor. This can have a negative affect on not only on living marine resources but also on related ecosystems. Species groups, communities or habitats that are easily damaged and take a long time to recover are considered vulnerable. The vulnerability of an ecosystem is related to the vulnerability of its constituent populations, communities or habitats. Features of an ecosystem may be physically vulnerable (i.e. structural elements of the ecosystem may be damaged through direct contact by fishing gear) or functionally vulnerable (i.e. selective removal of a species may change the manner in which the ecosystem functions). The most vulnerable ecosystems are those that are both easily disturbed and slow to recover. [the full definition of vulnerability can be found in paragraphs 14-16 in the FAO International Guidelines]
Particular ecosystems are likely to show increasing vulnerability when fishing intensity increases, though the relationship may not be linear and proportional but rather a stepped relationship with abrupt changes once thresholds are crossed. Ecosystem components identified as particularly vulnerable include, for example, sponge-dominated communities, coldwater corals, and seep and vent communities. These are often associated with topographical, hydrophysical or geological features such as, for example, summits and flanks of seamounts, hydrothermal vents and cold seeps.
The FAO International Guidelines contain criteria relevant in the identification of a VME:
Regional Management Bodies
The high seas are a vast area and are subject to a number of regional management bodies, only some of which have the competence to manage deep-sea high seas fisheries.
The majority of high seas areas with major deep-sea fisheries are covered by a regional management body (RFMO), including: NAFO and NEAFC in the North Atlantic Ocean, SEAFO in the Southeast Atlantic Ocean, CCAMLR in the Southern Ocean, SPRFMO in the South Pacific Ocean and GFCM in the Mediterranean Sea. Most of these bodies have implemented some form of management or conservation measures with respect to deep-sea fisheries in response to the FAO International Guidelines and UNGA Resolution 61/105. These measures include closures of certain areas to fishing activities where there are recognised vulnerable marine ecosystems (see high seas MPAs).
RFMOs in other areas are emerging or awaiting ratification by member parties. For example, an RFMO in the North Pacific is currently under discussion and the Southern Indian Ocean Fisheries Agreement (SIOFA) was adopted (in 2006) but is not yet in force.
There are also still areas in which there is no regional agreement that covers deep-sea fisheries management, these include the Arctic, Central and Southwest Atlantic. In these areas regulation of fishing is left to the discretion of individual flag States.
This map shows the high seas areas covered by RFMOs that manage deep-sea fisheries in the high seas (in blue), those that are emerging but not yet in force (in parenthesis) and those that are under discussion (orange).