Improved management of fishing's "last frontier" needed
Countries discuss how to better protect deep sea species and habitats
15 February 2008, Rome - Fifty-three countries and the European Community have begun discussions on how to better protect fragile deep sea fish species and habitats from irresponsible fishing practices.
In a series of meeting brokered by FAO, the countries will draft a set of international guidelines on how to responsibly manage deep sea fishing (DSF) and protect sensitive sea-bottom species and ecosystems in high seas areas outside of national jurisdictions.
A first set of talks was held last week at FAO's Rome headquarters, with Jane Willing, Manager of International Relations for New Zealand's Ministry of Fisheries, serving as chair. Another round of discussions will occur in August, with a view to finalizing the guidelines.
Because deep sea fishing is a relatively new activity and requires considerable resources in terms of investment and technology, few countries have developed policies and plans specifically related to managing it, even in their own waters.
Managing DSF in high seas areas outside of countries' exclusive economic zones (EEZs) is even more challenging, since it requires multilateral solutions involving not only countries whose vessels are engaged in DSF but also other interested countries.
"Through these meetings we're seeking to help countries work individually and collectively to ensure the sustainability of deep sea fishing, prevent adverse impacts to vulnerable marine ecosystems, and protect marine biodiversity," said Jean-François Pulvenis de Séligny-Maurel, Director of FAO's Fisheries and Aquaculture Economics and Policy Division.
"It's quite a complicated issue and there's a lot of ground to cover, but good progress has already been made," he added.
Many deepwater fish species grow slowly, reach sexual maturity late, and may not always reproduce every year. As a result they have low resilience to intensive fishing, and recovery from overfishing can take generations.
Until recently, the great depth of the deep sea made fishing there difficult, while the abundance of stocks in shallower seas meant there was little incentive to fish in difficult-to-exploit areas.
But starting in the late 1970s, reduction of fishing opportunities in inshore areas and the improvement of gear technology and navigation instruments saw deep-sea fishing expand within EEZs and into the high seas.
From 1950 to 1977, deep sea fish made up less than one percent of all marine catches on average; over the 1995-2005 period that increased to nearly three percent on average and in 2005 alone made up 4 percent of all marine captures (3.3 million tonnes).
That relatively small figure masks the fact that overall DSF catches increased by nearly 75 percent, and in many cases fishing for sensitive deep sea stocks has not been sustainable.
One example is the orange roughy. Catches of this fish were first reported in the late 1970s, peaked around 1990, and since then have declined in every area where it has been exploited.
Some deep sea fishing in the high seas also raise serious concerns about vulnerable species, such as delicate cold water corals and sponges; fragile sea-bottom seep and vent habitats that contain species found nowhere else, and specific features like underwater "sea mounts," often home to sensitive species. The guidelines being developed for DSF will also include measures to identify and protect these ecosystems.
Media Relations, FAO
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Facts on deep sea fishing
The deep sea is the world's largest habitat, accounting for roughly 50% of the Earth's surface.
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