European Commission Proposes Protections for Deep-Sea Habitat

Deep-sixed. A proposed ban would eliminate bottom trawling in the North Atlantic.

Greenpeace / Kate Davison

The European Commission wants to tighten its oversight of deep-sea habitat, proposing yesterday to phase out deep-sea trawling, reduce discards of unwanted fish, and implement scientific quotas for fishing. "If you want to take deep-sea fish, you have to do it in a sustainable manner," says Oliver Drewes, a commission spokesperson for maritime affairs and fisheries.

Only 1% of fish caught in the Northeast Atlantic come from the deep sea, including species such as black scabbard and red sea bream. The amounts aren't huge—34 tons in 2008—compared to more fecund, faster growing fish in shallower waters, but they have been declining due to overfishing. Worse, the methods used to catch them are particularly destructive of fragile deep-sea habitat, which includes slow-growing coral reefs thousands of years old. There's other collateral damage, too: Trawling and bottom-set gillnets (which are left on the seafloor and then hauled up) can contain up to 20% "bycatch" of unwanted species, such as deepwater sharks.

The commission's proposal is part of a larger effort to improve the management and health of European fisheries. It was also inspired by calls by the United Nations General Assembly over the past decade to protect deep-sea habitat in international waters. The proposal would phase out licenses for deep-sea trawling 2 years after the regulation is approved, require strict quotas for deep-sea species that lack solid scientific data on the size of populations, and require impact assessments for opening new areas to deep-sea bottom fishing. It would apply to all the economic exclusive zones of E.U. countries and international waters of the Northeast Atlantic.

Several nations have already taken steps to restrict deep-sea bottom trawling, and Palau has banned it, but the commission is the first large fishing community to propose a ban. "This action is a complete turning point in potential protection of deep-sea bottom communities," says marine biologist Les Watling of the University of Hawaii, Honolulu: "One can hope that this will lead to a global ban of bottom trawling in the deep sea, but I can't say I am optimistic on that point. The few companies still trawling for the ever-dwindling supply of deep-sea fish are reaping huge profits and they won't give those up easily."

Environmental groups reacted favorably. The Pew Environment Group would like to see impact assessments for existing deep-sea fisheries as well, and closures where vulnerable species might live.

The proposal will go to the European Parliament and Council of Ministers for review when they reconvene in early September. It could be adopted by end of year, if they move quickly, Drewes says. Matthew Gianni of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition says it's "impossible to predict" how long the legislative process will take, but he estimates 8 to 12 months, which would mean a commission ban on deep-sea bottom trawling in 2015.