By Vienna Saccomanno
This blog was inspired by Dr. Les Watling’s discussion immediately following the recent meeting of the UN General Assembly.
Scientists and underwater explorers have discovered submarine mountains scattered beneath the waves that harbor an incredible diversity of marine life. Known as seamounts, these extraordinary places are highly productive oases in the deep sea, and home to extremely fragile, long-lived, rare and sometimes endangered marine life. By rising up from the depths of the ocean to heights of at least 1,000 meters, seamounts increase the upwelling of nutrient rich waters resulting in a remarkable diversity of fishes and other open-ocean animals. Some seamounts function like rest stops for migratory species, such as endangered sperm whales, sea turtles, seabirds and sharks, on vast open-ocean journeys. These remote, deep areas are also a vital frontier for scientific discovery, as research expeditions continue to uncover new and rare marine species.
But people, and our far-reaching environmental impacts, are a significant threat to the marine life that inhabits seamounts all over the world. Commercial fishing, for species like orange roughy, has already resulted in appreciable deterioration of habitats and loss of marine life. Because of this, seamounts are among a number of ocean features known as vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs).
For seamounts in the high seas, efforts are underway to protect them from destructive fishing practices. A decade ago, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution that committed high seas fishing nations to prevent significant adverse impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems like seamounts. Since then, the UNGA adopted two more resolutions calling for further action and this year will review how well all of the resolutions have been implemented.
Yet, since the adoption of the first UN resolution, the management of high seas bottom fisheries has focused less on vulnerable ecosystems and more on certain groups of animals that are vulnerable to fishing gear, referred to as “VME indicator species”. These are groups such as deep-sea corals and sponges that are very long-lived, slow growing and easily removed or broken by fishing gear. And where are these species commonly found? Seamounts.
When VME indicator species are caught in trawl nets, the vessel is required to stop fishing and move away from where the encounter occurred in many areas of the high seas. Ironically, many indicator species are so frail and brittle they fall apart once ripped from the seafloor and rarely make it to the boat deck to be counted as a catch. And when some small pieces are retained in the trawl, it’s rarely enough to amount to an official “encounter” and trigger a halt to fishing in the area.
A more effective approach to deep-sea conservation would be to stop trying to count mashed up bits of indicator species, and accept the fact that seamounts are, in the language of the UN resolution, Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems. They are islands of biodiversity, home to many dozens of fragile and long-lived species that can easily be wiped out by the indiscriminate and heavy trawl gear. Seamounts, as true VMEs, should be off-limits to damaging fishing gear, and should be protected from all forms of human disturbance, including mining and other destructive activities.
There is growing awareness of the need to improve efforts to prevent damage to vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems. A UN workshop held earlier this month reviewed implementation of the resolutions adopted over the past decade that called for States to prevent damage to deep-sea ecosystems, including seamounts, from destructive fishing practices. The United Nations Secretary-General and Deep Sea Conservation Coalition agree that implementation of the resolutions continues to be uneven and further efforts are needed to safeguard vast parts of the ocean currently unprotected from destruction by deep-sea bottom trawling.
From August 26th to September 9th, a second round of UN discussions will be underway to develop a new treaty to protect biodiversity in the high seas. This agreement could establish new, multilateral governance mechanisms to ensure that destructive fishing practices on the high seas are no longer allowed to occur on vulnerable marine ecosystems. While these negotiations are ongoing, it is imperative that member countries of governance organizations responsible for management of high seas fisheries fully act on their commitments in UN resolutions to protect vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems adopted over the past decade.
Vienna Saccomanno is the Conservation Projects Coordinator & Communications Director at Marine Conservation Institute. She is a member of the High Seas Alliance working group and is actively involved with the California Seamounts Coalition and the National Ocean Protection Coalition.