Fishing vessels will continue to ply unprotected seamounts in the South Pacific as an intergovernmental summit ends this week with no decision on bottom trawling.
But officials have confirmed they will now consider banning fishing on seamounts in New Zealand waters as part of work ordered by Oceans and Fisheries Minister David Parker.
The South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO), which regulates deep sea fishing, was due to launch a review of bottom trawling rules this year.
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the conference online. Thus, the delegates of the 15 Member States agreed to postpone the evaluation for an additional year in order to have face-to-face interviews.
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Meanwhile, New Zealand fishing companies are free to renew their licenses to continue trawling the seamounts.
Fishing practice sees weighted nets dragged along the seabed, carrying some of our most popular fish: orange roughy, hoki and oreo. About 90% of the catches, for both coastal and deep-sea fishing, come from bottom trawling.
Conservation groups argue that trawling destroys the delicate ecosystems that thrive on seamounts. The landforms of the ocean floor create an upwelling of nutrients that attract marine species to feed and have been known for centuries as good fishing grounds.
The seamounts are home to delicate slow-growing corals and sea sponges, which are at risk of being destroyed by heavy fishing gear.
New Zealand has the only fleet that still fishes with bottom trawls on seamounts in international waters in the region.
Parliament’s Select Environment Committee is currently considering a petition to ban bottom trawling on New Zealand’s seamounts.
Last year Parker, the Ministry of Primary Industries and the Department of Conservation began work on managing the effects of trawling early this year.
The agencies will establish a forum, and the terms of reference have just been finalized, said John Young, MPI’s acting director of international policy. “It is hoped that the works can start very soon.”
He confirmed that the forum will discuss a ban on seamount trawling.
“Forum discussions will be supported by the use of a spatial decision support tool that incorporates the best available information on benthic species distribution, fishing activity, seamounts and similar features” , did he declare.
“We expect that the closure of additional seamounts and/or seamount-like features will be considered as part of the forum’s deliberations.”
But the $4.18 billion the fishing industry says the practice is well managed. Ships repeatedly criss-cross the same narrow lanes – they wouldn’t plunder an entire seamount. Industry, as well as environmental NGOs, are likely to be represented on the forum.
Since 2006, bottom trawling has been banned in a third of New Zealand waters (although a large percentage of these areas were never viable for the method in the first place). Now only 3.5%, or 122,000 km², of the Exclusive Economic Zone (or EEZ) is intact.
Industry and conservation groups also disagree on the number of seamounts in the EEZ.
The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, an umbrella group of NGOs, says SPRFMO’s pause should not delay government action.
Activist Karli Thomas says New Zealand representatives at SPRFMO have continually advocated against stricter regulations to protect seamounts.
“The six New Zealand vessels licensed by the New Zealand government to fish on seamounts in the South Pacific belong to companies recently convicted of illegal trawling in closed areas,” she said.
“Their fishing licenses expire in April, and there is no reason to delay action until 2023. Fisheries Minister David Parker could stop the destruction and protect these precious deep-sea ecosystems. ‘a stroke of the pen, simply refusing to reissue high water’. sea licenses to a handful of trawlers belonging to companies which have shown that they cannot be trusted.
Ellie Hooper, from Greenpeace NZ who is a member of DSCC, says: “There seems to be endless kicking in the road about this.
“The Minister has the power under current legislation to end trawling on seamounts, which would have a significant impact on biodiversity.”
According to Hooper, a Horizon poll commissioned by Greenpeace shows that 80% of respondents support banning bottom trawling in the most vulnerable parts of the ocean.
The SPRFMO meeting ends on Friday. Young said New Zealand supported the review of the body which would take place during the year.
This will allow for “further analysis and consultation” and will be informed by a review of bottom fishing by the UN General Assembly, scheduled for later this year, he said.
Young confirmed that the 12-month high seas licenses will expire on April 30. “Companies must meet a specific set of criteria to obtain deep sea fishing licenses and there are conditions attached to their use,” he said.
“We recognize that bottom trawling has impacts on the seabed – including seamounts and seamount-like features and their associated communities.
“We also recognize the contribution bottom trawling makes to New Zealand’s commercial fisheries and local economies.”