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Can the EU do more to protect deep sea life?

A debate is underway within the European Union over legislation to manage deep-sea fisheries, in the run up to a vote by the European Parliament, Prospect gathered leading experts to discuss the issues

By Prospect Team  

Credit: Deep Sea Conservation Coalition

On 10 December proposed legislation on deep sea fishing from the EU Fisheries Committee will go to a vote by the plenary of the European Parliament.

Last month a majority of MEPs on the EU Fisheries Committee voted against a phase-out of deep-sea bottom trawling and bottom gillnet (or “set net”) fishing, opting instead for a compromise that would require a review of the impacts in four years. By delaying in this fashion both of these damaging practices could continue for almost a decade.

Our panel were asked to discuss how much more of the deep-sea habitat might be destroyed in this time. “We will have stripped away the ecosystem. The prospects for recovery will be much weaker” said Professor Calum Roberts, Marine Conservation Biologist at University of York and author of An Unnatural History of the Sea. And then there is the question of how much it is likely to cost EU taxpayers through national or EU subsidies and management costs.

“There is enough economic rationalism to know what is happening” said Philip Burgess, former Co-chair of United Nations ICP on Oceans and the Law of the Sea. Aniol Esteban, Head of the Environment Programme at The New Economics Foundation added “as well as subsidies we must also think about negative economic returns. Deep sea trawling brings negative value. Each tonne of fish caught by deep-sea bottom trawling represents a cost to society of between €388 and €494, a conservative estimate  since it does not include the significant costs to valuable deep-sea ecosystems.”

With such clear consensus on the negative impact of deep sea fishing on the environment and the economic health of the EU and the North Atlantic, why then is the scientific data that is being used to measure the impact failing to alter attitudes?

The sea is difficult to study…” said Dr Chris Yesson from ZSL, Institute of Zoology. Thedata is only there for commercially viable species” said Laura Miller, Programme Director of Synchronicity Earth. Information on the deep sea is so scarce that even David Parker, marine biologist at Youngs Seafood Ltd, one of Europe’s leading fish product producers and distributors added “we don’t source deep sea fish as we don’t have the data. There is a business risk about not having systematic supply”.

Barry Gardiner MP, Shadow Minister for Natural Environment and Fisheries was critical of the way decisions have been made. “You should have good science, and scientific data, before you go rummaging around at the bottom of the ocean.” He added; “In a political context you should proceed in accordance to the science and if you don’t have enough data to operate on, proceed in the presence of the precautionary principle. What they plan to do is reverse that principle, even if we can’t see what we’re doing, we should still be allowed to do potentially untold damage, but without actually being able to quantify it.”

If not scientific data then what is informing policy making at a European level? “The quality of the debate is abysmal” said Professor Callum Roberts. “We are seeing assertions and green wash from the fishing industry.” “The impact of arguments made by the fishing industry is a factor” said Matt Gianni, co-founder and policy advisor at the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. “The majority of the members of the committee are under considerable pressure from a relatively small, influential sector of the deep sea trawling industry,” he added. It was suggested by Clare Nouvian, Founder and Director of BLOOM and author of The Deep that this is a particular problem in France where she recently led a high-profile campaign to raise awareness culminating in a petition with over 100,000 signatures being sent to President Hollande.

So, what could the British government do which might make a difference? There is currently no official government position on the issue although DEFRA circulated a paper to MEPs prior to European Parliament Fisheries Committee votes which raised a number of important concerns. Other documents circulated by DEFA have however indicated clear opposition to a phase-out of deep-sea trawling and gillnet fishing. A DEFRA Sea Fisheries Conservation document from 14 June 2013 clearly states that “a blanket ban on trawling and gillnets and the way this is proposed by the Commission is not appropriate.”

The UK government’s inaction was a source of concern for the panel, especially as this country had been active in shaping the UN General Assembly resolutions on this subject in the past. Several panellists were surprised that the activities of French deep sea trawlers in British waters has not become a greater domestic political issue. “Ten French deep-sea bottom trawlers could destroy an area of deep sea in UK waters the size of Paris in in less than two days” said Clare Nouvian. It was agreed that regardless of the outcome of the European Parliament vote on 10 December, the UK government has shown no leadership on deep sea fisheries, an issue that is both important to its environment and economy and on which in previous decades it had led the agenda.

Roundtable participants included:

Andrew Kuyk CBE Director of Sustainability and Competitiveness, Food and Drink Federation | Aniol Esteban, Head of Environment Programme, New Economics Foundation (NEF) | Barry Gardiner MP, Shadow Minister for Natural Environment and Fisheries | Bronwen Maddox, Editor, Prospect (chair) | Charles Clover, journalist and author of End of the Line, How Overfishing is changing the world and what we eat  | Clare Nouvian, Founder and Director, BLOOM Association; author of “The Deep”, “Environmental Woman of the Year” in the 2012 “Femmes en Or” awards. | Daniel Cressey, News Reporter, Nature. | David Parker, Marine Biologist, Youngs Seafood Ltd |Debbie Crockard, Fisheries Policy Officer, Marine Conservation SocietyDr Chris Yesson, Postdoctoral Research Assistant, ZSL Institute of Zoology | Dr Murray Roberts, Professor of Marine Biology, Herriot-Watt University | Fiona Harvey , Environment Correspondent, Guardian | Jo Royle, Ocean Advocate and Skipper, co-founder of Common Seas | Joseph Piddington, Technical Development Manager, Selfridges | Laura Miller, Programme Director, Synchronicity Earth | Liane Veitch, Senior Policy Advisor, Client Earth | Matthew Gianni, Co-founder Political and Policy Advisor, Deep Sea Conservation Coalition

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