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Government U-turn on protection of vulnerable ocean life

Manta, Ecuador, 29 January 2024: New Zealand looks set to abandon a proposal to improve ocean protection in the South Pacific, a move which threatens to undermine global efforts to reverse biodiversity loss and break a multilateral commitment made by nations at the UN General Assembly in 2006 – and every year since then – to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems, including seamounts, in international waters from destructive fishing practices1.

As the 12th South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO) meeting began in Ecuador today, New Zealand failed to submit new boundaries for bottom trawling management areas, based on scientific work it did in 2023 to map out the 30% of the South Pacific fisheries management areas where bottom trawling would be allowed to continue. While these boundaries still leave known seamounts and other fragile areas exposed to threat, they represent a move in the right direction for deep sea conservation in the region. In not submitting the new boundaries, New Zealand walked away from its commitments under a conservation measure, agreed by consensus at SPRFMO’s meeting last year.

“While the 2023 proposal fell short of fully protecting seamounts, it was a starting point. By turning its back on implementation of this deep sea conservation measure, New Zealand is out of step with the significant global progress made on ocean protection this decade. We urge all nations at this year’s South Pacific fisheries meeting to stand by their conservation goals, deliver on l UN commitments, and refuse to accept New Zealand’s behaviour.  They can be defenders of vulnerable ocean life by strengthening the 2023 proposal2,” said Duncan Currie, the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition’s (DSCC) Head of Delegation to SPRFMO.

While Australia has stepped in to submit the new trawling boundaries required under the 2023 protection proposal, the new Government of New Zealand will push its own fishing industry’s interests in a separate proposal that would allow up to three years’ worth of orange roughy catches – a slow growing species that can live for over 200 years – to be taken in a single year. Carrying forward such a large amount of catch is not done in any other international fisheries, and even the proposal from New Zealand concedes that it may increase the impact on vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems. Furthermore, the proposal relates to  a seamount chain of extremely high biodiversity that has been declared an ‘Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Area’ under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

New Zealand is the only country still bottom trawling on seamounts in the South Pacific, and one of only a handful of  countries still using such destructive gear on vulnerable ecosystems in international waters. This fishing method involves dragging heavily weighted nets over the surface of seamounts, which causes significant damage to ocean life and can wipe out entire populations of species. There have been multiple incidents in which more than a tonne of coral has been dragged up in a single trawl and, in one case, as much as five tonnes in a single trawl by a New Zealand vessel in the area3.

“The global community is rallying around the new High Seas Treaty to protect ocean life in international waters, yet New Zealand seems hell bent on a final smash-and-grab on seamounts  in the South Pacific. It is critically important that all nations defend these fragile deep-sea ecosystems and the rich web of life they support with a view to permanently closing them to bottom trawling by 2025 at the latest,” said Karli Thomas, Pacific Seamounts Campaign Lead for the DSCC.

The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) is an alliance of 118 organisations globally, working together to ensure the health and diversity of deep sea life.


1. The rarity of the species at stake, along with the urgency of the threat, spurred UN Member States to commit to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems in international waters from destructive fishing practices in 2006. Ever since, regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOS) around the world have been working to implement the UN agreement. Some have made progress, but SPRFMO has been slow to take necessary action, largely because New Zealand has maintained its opposition to protection from damaging bottom trawl on seamounts in the region.

2. Read more about the DSCC’s priorities at the 12th meeting of SPRFMO.

3. Read more about the 2023 proposal to SPRFMO, including scientific evidence of the adverse impacts of bottom trawling.


Patricia Roy: