Time to ban high-seas bottom trawling
It?s easy to tune out all those bad news stories about what?s going on in our oceans. After all, when you look out over the water, it seems like everything?s fine ? same as it ever was. But look beneath those waves and it?s a different story.
Our out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality has prevented us from really catching on to what human activities are doing to marine life ? including important species we depend on for food. Nations, industries and individuals all get away with doing things to our oceans that people would never put up with on land.
One of those things is bottom trawling. This fishing method involves dragging heavy nets weighted with beams or rollers over the ocean floor, essentially bulldozing and scooping up whatever is in their path. The nets are then hauled up to the surface where fishermen keep whatever fish they are looking for, and throw back the rest ? most of which dies. Meanwhile, depending on the type of habitat trawled and the type of gear used, the sea bottom can be left scoured bare.
If it sounds obscene, that?s because it is. Bottom trawling for fish is often like fire-bombing a forest to hunt deer. It gets the job done, but leaves a huge mess in its wake.
New technologies are now enabling modern bottom-trawling fleets to reach deep-sea canyons and seamounts on the high seas ? the international waters outside national jurisdictions. Seamounts are like mountain peak oases in the oceans that do not break the surface. Globally, there are tens of thousands of these peaks and they are prized for the diversity of marine life they harbour. Of course, that diversity also makes them targets for bottom trawlers.
Right now, there are virtually no rules governing trawling on the high seas. That could change in November at a United Nations meeting where nations will vote on a resolution for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. The proposal has the support of thousands of international scientists ? and, when polled on the matter, the vast majority of the public as well.
It?s also a readily achievable goal. At about 300 vessels, high-seas bottom trawling is still a very small industry, but one that happens to cause an inordinate amount of damage. Banning bottom trawling at this stage ? at least temporarily ? to develop sustainable, science-based fishing plans, would have minimal economic consequences and it would go a long way to protect our already overfished oceans for the future.
I hate to dredge up the old analogy of the cod fishery collapse off Canada?s East Coast, but it?s one that we must never forget. Scientists repeatedly told the federal government that we were taking too many fish and that stocks were in danger. The warnings weren?t heeded, and a way of life disappeared for thousands of fishing families in Eastern Canada. Stocks still haven?t recovered.
We must never forget this story precisely because we can?t see what?s going on in the ocean. From the surface, it looks like all?s well. But this only means we have to pay that much more attention when scientists tell us that something is amiss.
Yet, in spite of this history and the fact that there are no Canadian bottom-trawling ships working the high seas, the federal government is waffling on a moratorium. This is completely unacceptable. Damage caused by bottom trawling is well documented. A formal science review from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans released this spring confirmed the damage bottom trawling can cause.
Canada has the longest coastline in the world. We have an international duty to do our part towards conservation and we can?t afford any more mismanagement of such an important resource. It?s time for Canada to step up and support a moratorium on high-seas bottom trawling ? both to show some leadership and to give the fish a much-needed break.