Protector of the world’s oceans

Beyond the territorial limits of the world’s coastal countries lies a vast area of ocean that belongs to no one. Ranging to depths of up to 10,000 metres, this huge expanse of sea covers almost 50 per cent of the earth’s surface and holds promise of cures to human deadly diseases, such as cancer.

The eyes of the world’s conservationists are currently on Joe Borg, the European commissioner responsible for fisheries and maritime affairs, to protect it.

Referred to as the high seas, most of this area lies beyond the edge of the continental shelf, past the 200 mile limit from shore that most countries consider within their domain. Because it is under no single country’s jurisdiction, it is particularly vulnerable to being exploited by all and protected by none.

Commercial fishing vessels are now beginning to reach down with nets the size of football fields armed with multi-ton steel plates and rollers that are dragged across the seabed, ploughing up and pulverising everything in their path. The destruction that is being inflicted, mostly by European countries, is slowly but surely extinguishing the potential of the high seas.

“One sweep of a bottom trawl can uproot and pulverise a thriving deep ocean ecosystem and the unique life it sustains,” Lisa Speer, of the National Resources Defence Council, said.

“Fragile coral systems in particular stand no chance against these ruthlessly effective underwater bulldozers. Once destroyed, slow-growing deep-sea species are either lost forever or are unlikely to recover for decades or centuries,” Ms Speer warned.

For all of its destruction, the high seas bottom trawling industry brings few benefits. It takes two tons of oil to catch one ton of fish and is thus affordable only for rich countries.

It is estimated that the overall value of the catch from high seas bottom trawl fishing worldwide is $300-400 million. European Union countries were responsible for approximately 60 per cent of the total reported catch.

Therefore, it is EU leadership that will help protect deep sea biodiversity or its intransigence that will ultimately result in its destruction.

Deep sea species show great promise for treating cancer, asthma and other deadly diseases. Similar to the promise of such cures from the world’s rainforests, they are being destroyed before scientists have had a chance to identify and learn about them.

New technology now allows for deeper exploration and researchers have uncovered a remarkable array of species inhabiting the ocean floor at depths of over 200 metres. At the same time, however, technology has also enabled fishermen to reach far deeper than ever before, into areas where bottom trawls can destroy in minutes what has taken nature hundreds and in some cases thousands of years to build.

The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), an alliance of over 40 international organisations, joined by 1,136 of the world’s leading deep ocean scientists from 69 countries, are currently campaigning for a United Nations moratorium on high seas bottom trawling which would allow scientists the time to discover what is at stake and whether and how deep sea fisheries can be managed in a sustainable manner.

The arguments in favour of a moratorium are overwhelming and political momentum is building rapidly. The main stumbling block remains the EU.

Dr Borg has a massive opportunity before him. He has the chance to determine whether the high seas will remain a lucrative fishing ground for the few or a natural resource for the many. He has the chance to leave his mark rather than be dismissed as a pawn that protected the interests of profitable ecological destroyers.

Source: Caroline Muscat