This was the 33rd annual meeting of NEAFC, a regional fisheries management organisation (RFMO) established to manage high seas fisheries in the North East Atlantic Ocean. The members that make up the organisation are the European Union, Norway, Iceland, Russia, and Denmark on behalf of the Faroe Islands and Greenland.
In June this year, NEAFC adopted stronger measures for management of deep-sea fisheries and conservation of deep-sea species and habitats in the North East Atlantic. The new regulation, which entered into force in September, requires prior environmental impact assessments for all bottom fisheries in new fishing areas, the protection of a broader list of vulnerable deep-sea species and habitats, and the sustainability of deep-sea fish.
NEAFC agreed this week to close to bottom fishing six new areas where deep-sea sponges and corals are found in the Hatton and Rockall Bank area to protect them from damage from bottom trawling.
However, it did not agree to close two additional areas as recommended by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). One, the Josephine Seamount, is an area that ICES has repeatedly recommended closing because of the risk of serious adverse impacts on vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems.
The government of Portugal in May issued a new regulation prohibiting Portuguese vessels from bottom trawling and bottom gillnet fishing on the Josephine Seamount and all other seamounts on the high seas of the NEAFC area which form part of Portugal’s legal continental shelf under the UN Law of the Sea.
Unfortunately, neither the EU nor other NEAFC members were willing to consider extending the initiative taken by Portugal to prohibit fleets from other countries from bottom trawling and gillnet fishing in the area. NEAFC also failed to follow an ICES recommendation to close a portion of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR), north of the Azores, although bottom-trawl vessels do not currently fish in this area. The new 2014 NEAFC deep-sea fisheries regulation should prevent future bottom trawl fishing in this area, if implemented effectively.
New information provided to the meeting this week raised troubling concerns that deep-sea bottom fishing may be occurring in areas that NEAFC has previously closed to protect vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems.
Since 2014, all NEAFC members that conduct bottom fishing in closed areas, or in ‘new’ fishing areas, are obliged to carry out prior environmental impact assessment before bottom fishing could be allowed. If this new information was confirmed, NEAFC members implicated would be severely undermining this NEAFC obligation.
Regrettably, NEAFC members could only agree to refer this issue to a meeting next year of NEAFC’s compliance committee without specifying any concrete enforcement actions that should be taken.
NEAFC agreed to extend a ban on fishing for three shark species. In addition, targeted fisheries for deep-sea sharks are currently prohibited. However, deep-sea sharks are caught as bycatch in fisheries for other deep-sea species and remain highly vulnerable to depletion and in some cases to extinction.
NEAFC has yet to adopt regulations to prevent the bycatch of highly vulnerable deep-sea species. Catch limits were adopted for the fisheries for grenadiers on the high seas of the Mid Atlantic Ridge, one of the largest deep-sea fisheries in the NEAFC area. However, no limits were agreed on the catch of orange roughy, a fishery which ICES has repeatedly recommended be prohibited. This fishery, conducted by the Faroes Islands, remains unregulated by NEAFC. Prior to the meeting, a set of recommendations was submitted by the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition with the Iceland Nature Conservation Association Oceana, Seas at Risk, The Pew Charitable Trusts and WWF.
"Although NEAFC has made progress in adopting a catch limit for fishing for grenadiers and closing new areas to bottom fishing to protect vulnerable ecosystems, it still has a long way to go to fully put its commitments to ensure sustainable fisheries into action," said Matthew Gianni, co-founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition and an adviser to The Pew Charitable Trusts.
“NEAFC Contracting Parties could not agree on management measures for orange roughy nor on measures to minimise bycatch of vulnerable species such as deep sea sharks,” said Björn Stockhausen of Seas At Risk.
“This is contrary to ICES advice and the new deep-sea fisheries regulation that requires NEAFC to ensure the long-term sustainability of all deep-sea species and the rebuilding of depleted deep-sea fish stocks and species.”
Many of the deep-sea fisheries in the high seas areas regulated by NEAFC are for so-called “straddling stocks” – stocks of fish which also occur in EU waters and which are fished by EU fleets.
Earlier this week, the EU's Council of Fisheries Ministers set fishing limits for the coming two years for deep-sea species in EU waters and areas of the high seas regulated by NEAFC. Although the European Commission had proposed limits for most deep-sea stocks in line with scientific advice, ministers set higher limits. The ministers' decision highlights the shortcomings in the current EU regulation of deep-sea fisheries.
Since 2004, the EU has repeatedly committed at the UN General Assembly to taking 'urgent' action to protect deep-sea ecosystems from the harmful impacts of deep-sea fishing. Although the European Commission issued a proposal in July 2012 and the European Parliament concluded its first reading in December 2013, the Council of Fisheries Ministers has yet to decide on a position. It is critical that this process is successfully concluded in order to ensure selective, sustainable deep-sea fishing in EU waters and the protection of vulnerable species and ecosystems.
The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, with other nongovernmental organisations, is calling for a new EU regulation that contains obligations to end the overfishing of all deep-sea species (whether target or bycatch), rebuild depleted stocks, prevent the bycatch of the most vulnerable deep-sea species, protect vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems from the adverse impacts of bottom fishing, require impact assessments for all deep-sea bottom fisheries, and effect a transition to low-impact, selective fishing gears and practices through a phase-out of deep-sea bottom trawls and bottom gill nets.
"We renew our call for EU ministers to advance without delay a successful reform of deep-sea fisheries management in European waters that is in line with their commitments to the United Nations," Mr Gianni said.