NAFO agreed to close two new areas to protect deep-sea ecosystems such as coldwater corals, sponge and seapen ecosystems, but did not adopt the full suite of recommendations to protect sites identified by its scientists as high priorities. Fortunately, however, NAFO did agree to renew the area closures adopted at previous meetings and which were set to expire in December of this year, for an additional six years.
"We're hearing from scientists that we know more about deep sea ecosystems in the NAFO area than anywhere else in the world and yet some NAFO members refused to move forward on protecting these ecosystems," said Susanna Fuller of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.
"We see NAFO as a global leader in implementing the ecosystem approach to managing fisheries but we are disappointed that NAFO countries have not made more progress on meeting their UN commitments at this year's meeting."
While Norway, Canada, the United States and Iceland supported the adoption of protection measures for all deep-sea areas identified by NAFO scientists as priority areas in need of protection, most members were willing to support closing only some of the areas. Japan and Russia opposed any new area closures to protect deep-sea ecosystems but proposals to close two new areas were put to a vote and adopted by NAFO by a vote of 9-2. Moreover, NAFO did agree to extend existing area closures until 2020.
In addition, Norway, showed particular leadership in calling for full closure of seamount areas to bottom fishing and unregulated fishing. Several years ago NAFO agreed to 'close' seamounts to bottom fishing to protect their biodiversity but unregulated fishing continues on seamounts in the NAFO area under an "exploratory fishing" loophole in the regulation. Unfortunately, Norway's proposal was not supported by the other members of NAFO.
All NAFO members have repeatedly committed to protecting deep-sea ecosystems from the harmful impacts of deep-sea fishing, particularly bottom trawl fishing, through a series of resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly since 2004. As a result, NAFO has closed a number of areas to bottom fishing over the past decade. This year NAFO scheduled a review of the extent to which the area closures adopted to date provide sufficient protection to deep-sea ecosystems. As part of the review, the NAFO Scientific Council provided concrete recommendations on additional areas in need of protection.
Protection from fishing activity is important for seafloor biodiversity on the high seas but, these areas are not necessarily protected from other human activity, including oil and gas development and seabed mining. Coordination across governance organizations is needed to ensure that protections put in place by one regulatory authority, in this case NAFO, are respected by all regulatory authorities with the mandate to manage activities on the high seas.
"We were pleased to see continued momentum to protect sensitive deep-sea areas from the harmful impacts of bottom trawling" said Katie Schleit from the Ecology Action Centre. "However, NAFO has not finished the job. All identified areas must be protected from destructive fishing practices if NAFO members are to live up to their international commitments."
The DSCC and the EAC also note that NAFO failed to adhere scientific advice in a some cases regarding fishing quotas in the NAFO Regulatory Area. While scientific advice to close the shrimp fishery was followed, it was ignored in setting the quota for fishing for cod on the Flemish Cap - an area approximately 350 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. In addition, NAFO failed to adopt the "fins naturally attached" measure to prevent the practice of shark fining.
"We got a mixed bag at NAFO this year," said Schleit. "While we'd like to congratulate NAFO for the partial progress made on protecting a number of deep-sea areas, and steps forward on data reporting and reduction of bycatch, we still need to see closer adherence to scientific advice on a range of issues and more effective implementation of NAFO members' UN commitments."