Activists from Greenpeace fly a banner depicting a skeleton of a tuna between the hulls of US-flagged American Legacy fishing vessel and Panamian-flagged MV Fong Seong 888, in the Pacific Ocean on September 17 2009.
Deep below the ocean surface lies a cold, hostile environment where the light of day cannot penetrate. The life-forms inhabiting this murky world grow slowly, mature late and take time to reproduce. Many species live 30 years or more, some up to the grand age of 150. Most have not yet been defined by science.
This dark void, which lies beyond any country's national jurisdiction, is in trouble.
The world's deep-sea catch is steadily declining, and the high vulnerability of these fish populations and diverse marine ecosystems is well documented. Last year, officials from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea declared that in the Northeast Atlantic, 100 per cent of all targeted deep-sea species have been fished "outside safe biological limits." Yet the fishing continues, via trawlers dragging enormous weighted nets that, in a single pass, scrape clean the ocean floor.
In mid-September, the United Nations conducted a review of high-seas fishing practices* that could ultimately help save deep-sea ecosystems. Since 2004, a series of resolutions has been negotiated and approved, outlining a plan to safeguard the biological diversity of the deep ocean. Now fishing countries will once again be assessed to see if they have done what they pledged to do: protect deep-sea life while fishing in a sustainable way.
The answer, according to experts and environmental organisations around the world, is no.
After nearly a decade of talk, scientists and conservationists are asking the United Nations to take action and declare that any deep-sea fishing that doesn't meet the terms of these resolutions is illegal, unregulated and unreported, and must be stopped.
While enforcement of these regulations is critical, what makes the destruction of the deep sea truly senseless is its cost – which is paid for by public money. Fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly and economist Ussif Rashid Sumaila of the University of British Columbia examined subsidies to international bottom-trawl fleets and found that governments around the globe pay $152 million a year to prop up these fisheries.
Government subsidisation of fishing is not new. But without substantial taxpayer support, these operations would incur losses of $50 million annually. In addition to the waste and cost, deep-sea catches are also relatively insignificant as money-earners for major economies. The European Union, for example, has one of the world's largest deep-sea fishing fleets, yet its catches represent just two per cent of the total value of all EU fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic. Meanwhile, the destruction from the deep-sea trawlers is irreparable.
Bottom fishing on the high seas is a global activity carried out by a small number of countries. A technical paper prepared for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated in 2008 that 285 vessels worldwide are engaged in these high-seas operations and are registered to 27 flag states. The European community has the largest number of vessels (103), with the majority flagged to Spain.
Other flag states with a relatively large number of vessels include New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and Australia. Deep-sea fish products are typically consumed in Europe, the United States and Japan.
We are spending millions in public funds to wreck seascapes that take millennia to form. Governments must realise that deep-sea fishing not only wastes taxpayer dollars but that destroying the unique marine life in the deep sea for a relatively small catch of slow-growing fish is a bad investment.
*The outcome of these proceedings is awaited.
Karen Sack is director of International Ocean Conservation at Pew Environment Group.