Bottom Trawling Impacts Visible From Space

Bottom trawling, an industrial fishing method that drags large, heavy nets across the seafloor, stirs up huge, billowing plumes of sediment on shallow seafloors that can be seen from space.

As a result of scientific studies showing that bottom trawling kills vast numbers of corals, sponges, fishes and other animals, this fishing method has been banned in a growing number of places.

Now satellite images show that spreading clouds of mud remain suspended in the sea long after the trawler has passed.

There are tens of thousands of trawlers worldwide. They fish for shrimp and finfishes. Some bottom trawling operations catch 20 pounds of “bykill” or “bycatch” for every pound of targeted species.

What satellites can see is only the “tip of the iceberg,” because most trawling happens in waters too deep to detect sediment plumes at the surface, say scientists speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2008 Annual Meeting here today.

The symposium session, “Dragnet: Bottom Trawling, the World’s Most Severe and Extensive Seafloor Disturbance,” was organized by the Marine Conservation Biology Institute.

Speakers at the session included Dr. Elliott Norse, president of Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Bellevue Washington; John Amos, president of SkyTruth in Shepherdstown West Virginia, Dr. Les Watling, professor of zoology at the University of Hawaii-Manoa; and Susanna Fuller, PhD candidate in biology at Dalhousie University, Halifax Nova Scotia.

“Bottom trawling is the most destructive of any actions that humans conduct in the ocean,” said Dr. Watling. “Ten years ago, Elliott Norse and I calculated that, each year, worldwide, bottom trawlers drag an area equivalent to twice the lower 48 states.

“Most of that trawling happens in deep waters, out of sight. But now we can more clearly envision what trawling impacts down there by looking at the sediment plumes that are shallow enough for us to see from satellites,” he said.

“Bottom trawling repeatedly plows up the seafloor over large areas of the ocean” said Amos. “Until recently, the impact was basically hidden from view. But new tools – especially Internet-based image sites, like Google Earth – allow everyone to see for themselves what’s happening. In shallow waters with muddy bottoms, trawlers leave long, persistent trails of sediment in their wake.”

To see a gallery of satellite images, and take a Google Earth “virtual tour” of trawl-caused sediment plumes, go to and navigate to the “Trawling Impacts” image gallery.

“Seafloor animals such as glass sponges are particularly vulnerable to bottom trawling,” said Susanna Fuller, a graduate student of Professor Ransom Myers who died last year. He had published a series of papers showing that overfishing has eliminated 90 percent of the world’s large predatory fishes and is devastating marine ecosystems.

“What is amazing is the level of damage these types of animals have suffered, after the cod fishery in Canada was closed [in 1992]. We immediately started trawling deeper with no restrictions, and continue to do so,” Fuller said.

“There are ways to catch fish that are less harmful to the world’s vanishing marine life. We need to start protecting the seafloor by using fishing gear, besides bottom trawls, especially in the deep sea. It’s the only thing left,” she said.

“For years marine scientists have been telling the world that fishing has harmed marine biodiversity more than anything else,” said Dr. Norse.

“And it’s clear that trawling causes more damage to marine ecosystems than any other kind of fishing. Now, as the threats of ocean acidification and melting sea ice are adding insult to injury, we have to reduce harm from trawling to have any hope of saving marine ecosystems.”

Scientific findings about trawling impacts have led to increasing restrictions on this industrial fishing method.