The U.N. Division for Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea (DOALOS) reviewed measures to protect the vulnerable deep oceans of the high seas - the 64 percent of ocean that lies beyond the national jurisdictions of any individual nation. Its review, ordered by the U.N. General Assembly in 2004, was based on reports from member states on steps taken to stop destructive high seas fishing practices.
A draft version of the review posted July 14 on the DOALOS Web site said extremely vulnerable deep sea habitats require protection, but that fishing for newly discovered resources in the high seas often proceeds unregulated to the point of serious harm.
"Many fisheries are not managed until they are overexploited and clearly depleted and, because of the high vulnerability of deep-sea species to exploitation and their low potential for recovery, this is of particular concern for these stocks," the review said.
The draft review called bottom trawling a particular concern, due to its tendency to over-fish both targeted and non-targeted species, and the damage it causes to vulnerable ecosystems that provide critical habitat for marine life. It cited an "urgent need" in some cases for interim steps such as a moratorium on bottom trawling until formal conservation and management systems can be set up.
Nations have until Aug. 7 to respond to the review, which will be considered by the General Assembly before the end of the year.
Marine scientists and developing countries have called for a moratorium against high seas bottom trawling, which targets deep sea fish species such as orange roughy by dragging heavy gear across the seafloor, causing widespread and potentially irreversible damage to deep sea life.
Sylvia Earle, the renowned deep sea explorer who heads CI's marine conservation division, likens bottom trawling to trying to capture a songbird with a bulldozer.
Costa Rica, which under former Environment and Energy Minister Carlos Manuel Rodriguez took bold measures to establish marine protected areas, was the first nation to call for U.N. action on high seas bottom trawling.
"The total destruction of deep sea habitats for limited short term rewards is inexcusable," said Rodriguez, now regional vice president and director of CI's Mexico and Central America program. "Proactive steps, specifically in the form of a moratorium, must be taken to control the impacts of high seas bottom trawling."
Only two Regional Fisheries Management Organizations with authority to govern deep water fisheries - the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and the General Fisheries Council of the Mediterranean (GFCM) - have taken steps to regulate bottom trawling.
In 2003, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, in collaboration with a partnership of leading environmental NGOs, brought scientists together at the Defying Ocean's End Conference in Los Cabos, Mexico, to develop an agenda for maintaining healthy oceans. The conference recommended a U.N. moratorium on high seas bottom trawling and helped spawn the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition - an alliance of nearly 60 international environmental and conservation organizations campaigning for such a ban.
The U.N. review provides the final push necessary for the U.N. General Assembly to consider a moratorium, which is supported by mostly developing nations and opposed by a handful of countries with significant fishing industries, such as Iceland. The United States has indicated it wants to limit any expansion in high seas bottom trawling for now, with the possibility of a moratorium in 2009.