Damaging deep sea-trawling ban urged

Environmental groups welcomed the Bush administration’s promise this week to push for an international ban on bottom trawling in the deep sea and other “destructive” fishing practices.

United Nations officials are debating the practice this week, and environmentalists are hopeful that the meetings will result in an immediate moratorium on deep-sea bottom trawling while a specific regulatory framework is developed.

Lisa Speer, director of the Water and Oceans Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, equated bottom trawling to “serial clear cutting” of forests, and said a ban on the practice would be as significant a protection as the ban on drift-nets two decades ago.

In trawling, huge nets scrap clean the sea floor and seamounts, which are underwater mountains, looking for orange roughy and other fish that are served in high-end restaurants, Speer said.

These deep-sea areas had largely been unreachable until a decade or so ago when technological advances allowed trawling the ocean floor more than 6,000 feet beneath the surface.

But that trawling threatens the ecosystem it enters, critics say. Scientists themselves are only just beginning to understand what’s down there.

“The state of our ocean knowledge is behind what we know about Mars,” Speer said.

Some scientists believe that the organisms that survive with no light and under the intense pressure of the deep sea may offer chemicals that hold the possibility for medical advances.

On Friday, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, introduced a “sense of the Senate” resolution calling for a ban on “destructive” high-seas fishing.

It noted, “Compounds derived from organisms found on the high seas show promise for the treatment of deadly diseases such as cancer and asthma.”

The protection of seamounts is of particular importance to NRDC and other groups. The upward slopes create swirling undersea currents that pull up nutrients from the ocean floor creating an area rich in biodiversity. Microorganisms feed on those nutrients. Fish and other organisms feed on the microorganisms.

Corals, once thought to grow only in shallow waters, have also been discovered a great depths. Some are thought to be more than 8,000 years old.

Beyond environmental concerns, American political officials also say deep-sea trawling, practiced by foreign fleets, hurts American commercial fishing.

Bush put Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in charge of negotiating the U.S. position to eliminate fishing practices that “jeopardize fish stocks or the habitats that support them, or provide a commercial advantage to those who engage in such practices that is unfair in comparison with their competitors.” 

Speaking from the United Nations, Speer said several other countries are supporting the ban, including Brazil, Chile, France, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

She said Russia, Iceland and Spain — big fishing nations all — are among the countries lobbying against a ban.

Countries are responsible for regulating fisheries 200 miles off their shores. But the remaining areas of the sea, which equal roughly half the surface of the planet, are largely unregulated.  Only a quarter of the high seas beyond individual nations’ 200-mile zones are regulated by regional fishery management organizations.

There are areas where the United States allows bottom trawling. But the practice is regulated and limited to certain areas and certain times of the year.