Scotland continues to be on political centre stage, and it’s not just our constitutional prospects under review – the future of our deep sea heritage is being urgently discussed…
Campaigners from Scotland and across Europe are currently urging people to sign a petition asking the UK government to consider new regulations to better protect the deep sea in Scottish and UK waters.
To get to grips with what’s at stake, it’s worth first reflecting that our deep sea ecosystems have developed over countless centuries. Some species are extremely slow-growing: scientists estimate that it can take literally thousands of years for complex assemblages of deep-sea corals to develop. These are vital nursery areas for fish and the life-cycles of many other species. Unfortunately some fishing activities trawl across the seabed and this can damage our fragile deep seas habitats and marine life. We are still in the process of understanding our deep sea – it is estimated that millions of species are still to be discovered. And yet, as each year passes, we are in the process of doing irreparable damage to these hidden habitats.
Scotland has large areas of ‘deep sea’ and consequently has many of the current deep-sea fishing grounds within the EU. These areas are far offshore and species such as roundnose grenadier and orange roughy are fished for mainly by French and Spanish boats. Within the EU, Scotland and its fishing industry set the standard when it comes to research and conservation – but despite these leading standards, potentially damaging fishing practices are still able to take place in some of Scotland’s most fragile habitats.
Now, a coalition of different organisations from across Europe is taking action to phase-out bottom trawling and gillnet fishing below 600m.
Back in July 2012, the European Commission proposed a new regulation for fishing deep-sea stocks in EU and international waters of the Northeast Atlantic. As well as management provisions and impact assessments for deep-sea fisheries in new areas, the Commission proposed to phase-out the use of the most highly damaging methods to actively ‘target’ deep-sea species – bottom trawls and bottom gillnets. At the time, over 300 international scientists, including leading UK and Scottish researchers, called on EU policymakers to transform deep-sea policy and support the phase-out of deep-sea bottom trawling. However, at a vote last year the European Parliament narrowly voted against the proposals, due to a last-minute complication in the vote which led to supporters of the phase-out accidentally voting against their own view. The decision-making process has now passed to the EU Council of Ministers.
The www.protectourheritage.org campaign does not seek an end to all deep-sea fishing but instead calls for the phase-out of the most destructive fishing practices. The campaign is not a ‘full’ ban, but rather a restriction of the use of bottom trawling and gillnetting. The campaigners argue that this will help better protect deep sea species and deep sea ecosystems. Deep sea corals on the seabed are directly impacted by heavy gear trawling over the seafloor and bycatch is a real issue. A recent report by the French marine research institute (Ifremer) indicated that in 2012, 99 species of fish were caught in the French deep-water trawl fishery off Scotland and Ireland for just three main target species – amongst this catch were over 200 tonnes of deep-sea sharks.
It is therefore first and foremost an environmental campaign. But the campaigners also argue that the deep sea fisheries are an ‘economic absurdity’ because they are so heavily subsidised. European deep-sea trawl fleets benefit from large-scale public subsidies and these fleets would not make a profit without these subsidies. The New Economics Foundation report Deep Trouble has calculated that each tonne of fish caught by deep-sea bottom trawling represents a net cost to society of between €388 and €494 and that other methods of deep-sea fishing could sustain six times as many jobs.
So what would be the consequences in Scotland of a depth-related ban?
Most of the Scottish fleet’s catch of deep sea species is ‘by-catch.’ This means Scottish fishing vessels catch some deep sea species when fishing for other white fish fisheries, such as cod, haddock, monkfish and saithe caught at the lower depths of their range. But there is not much targetted deep-sea fishing undertaken by UK vessels. The UK Government has commented that “the UK, in comparative terms, is not a Member State that carries out a significant level of targeted deep sea fishing activity (other than perhaps for ling, tusk and conger, which are no longer on the species list) for the regime according to [European Parliament] amendments.” However, French and Spanish deep-sea trawl fleets do have significant targeted fisheries for deep sea species mainly in UK waters west of Scotland, Irish waters and in the waters of Rockall and Hatton Banks.
The campaigners recognise that a depth related ban would have some impact on a number of Scottish vessels, but the campaign coalition contends that there is a need to balance these impacts with the significant environmental impacts that deep sea trawling can have. The coalition estimates that the UK catch of deep sea species has been less than 1,000 tonnes per year in the last few years – and represents around 0.06% of all landings into Scottish ports. According to figures provided by Defra, only 12 of the 1,252 boats over 10m in the UK fleet currently fish below 600m with bottom trawl gear.
So in general terms, targetted fishing for deep sea species is not a major part of Scotland’s fishery. In the past concerns have been expressed about the local impacts of a deep-sea bottom trawl phase-out, with the suggestion that the northwestern port of Kinlochbervie would be disproportionately hit. However, the campaigners have since found out that deep-sea species make up approximately only 1.9% of total landings from all vessels (UK and foreign flagged) in Kinlochbervie. Lochinver, south of Kinlochbervie, appears to have higher levels of deep sea landings (approximately 25% for total landings by all boats), but they contend that if the pattern is similar to Kinlochbervie, then only 10% of this fishing (ie 2.5%) would occur below 600m and therefore be affected.
Scotland has devolved control of fisheries within the UK, but because this is an EU policy, the UK government has final decision on voting at EU level. Currently, the UK is supporting many positive aspects of the proposal as amended by the Parliament but is not in support of a phase-out of the most destructive deep-sea bottom trawling and bottom gillnet fishing for deep sea species below 600m. The Council of Ministers will soon consider the proposals.
What does the campaign call for?
The campaign calls on the UK Government to drop its opposition to phasing-out the most destructive fishing and to champion progress on the ‘Deep Sea Access’ file in the Council of Ministers by agreeing to:
1. Ensure that adverse impacts on vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems such as coral, sponge, and seamount ecosystems are prevented through appropriate management of all deep-sea fisheries, including closing areas to deep-sea bottom fishing where vulnerable marine ecosystems are known or likely to occur;
2. Require impact assessments for all deep-sea bottom fisheries (as opposed to deep-sea bottom fisheries only in ‘new’ fishing areas);
3. End deep-sea overfishing by ensuring that the catch of all deep-sea species is regulated and that fishing is only permitted if the catch, including of by-catch species, can be limited to sustainable levels based on a clear scientific understanding of the status of deep-sea stocks and associated precautionary science-based management;
4. Ensure that deep-sea fisheries are managed to minimise and, where possible, eliminate the by-catch of non-target species and prevent the catch of the most vulnerable species;
5. And most crucially, support the original intent of the Commission’s proposal: to phase-out deep-sea bottom trawling and bottom gillnetting, in particular, supporting amendments which would end destructive fishing practices through a phase-out of bottom trawling and bottom gillnet fishing below 600 metres
For more information you can check out the campaign site.