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As the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO) begins its 11th Annual Commission Meeting, held in Manta, Ecuador from 7th February, the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) calls for the phasing out of bottom trawl fishing  on seamounts on the high seas by December 2023.

Seamounts are vast underwater mountains, classed as vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) that act as critical  biological hotspots in the deep ocean, supporting a vast range of marine life UNGA states are obliged to protect VMEs, habitats  characterized by high biodiversity, high vulnerability to disturbance and a low recovery potential.

Scientists have estimated that our ocean is likely to be home to at least 100,000 seamounts higher than 1,000 meters. These critical formations influence ocean currents and nutrient circulation, making them ideal habitats for diverse communities of life, including deep sea corals, commercially important fish and migratory species, such as endangered whales, sea turtles, seabirds and sharks.

Since 2004, the DSCC has worked with scientists, non-governmental organizations, and intergovernmental organizations to safeguard these habitats. In the past twenty years, UNGA resolutions and conservation measures at other RFMOs have led to the reduction or elimination of bottom trawling on seamounts and other deep sea VMEs.

However, within the SPRFMO region only one State, New Zealand, still bottom trawls on seamounts, with only one vessel fishing In 2021, catching  only 20 tonnes of fish. This level of effort and return, coupled with science that confirms the impact of deep sea fishing on habitats and species, suggests that SPRFMO’s parties are at the point when they can and should call a halt to this activity.  Parties to SPRFMO have the unique opportunity to close the seamounts and associated features by December 2023 to ensure the continued health of our ocean.

Momentum is growing to end this highly damaging, outdated form of fishing:

  • SPRFMO member States have individually set world leading precedents with Chile becoming the first country to ban bottom trawling on seamounts in its national waters.
  • In 2019, the last remaining trawl fishery on seamounts (for splendid alfonsino) in the North Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (NAFO) area was closed.
  • The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources region (CCAMLR) has permanently banned bottom fishing to protect VMEs.
  • Last year, the European Commission (EC) announced that it would prohibit deep sea bottom fishing across 16,000 square kilometers of VMEs in the deep sea.

The DSCC’s Global Seamounts Campaign Lead, Bronwen Golder commented: “It is high time SPRFMO Member States commit to stop destructive bottom trawling on seamounts, some of our planet’s most important ecosystems, and bring SPFMO into the 21st century and inline with commitments made at other RFMOs.”

The DSCC’s Policy Advisor Matthew Gianni added: “The international community – including SPRFMO member states – are currently negotiating a global high seas treaty that would commit to greater ocean protection and address the emerging threat from deep sea mining. SPRFMO must keep in step with global progress towards better ocean protection, by ending bottom trawling on seamounts; among our planet’s most biologically rich ocean areas.”

DSCC delegation head Duncan Currie, in Manta for the talks said “The global community has agreed – through numerous UN resolutions – that deep sea ecosystems, and the biodiversity they contain, are of immense importance and value and have set out specific steps to protect them.  Given the ongoing destruction of deep sea life from bottom trawlers, we consider it is now time for the South Pacific Fisheries Management Organisation to put an end to bottom trawling.”

Notes to editor

In anticipation of the SPRFMO 11th Commission meeting in Manta, Ecuador in February, 2023, the DSCC calls on governments that are party to SPRFMO to:

  1. A phasing out bottom trawling on seamounts and other topographical features in the South Pacific high seas by December 2023
  2. Apply an ecosystem approach with respect to VMEs, recognising that all populations and species are integral to the ecosystem, not just particular “indicator taxa and recognise VMEs as the totality of the populations and species associated with an ecosystem (e.g. seamount / topographical feature), not simply the species which are members of an ‘indicator taxonomic group’.
  3. Consistently apply the precautionary approach and ecosystem approach and criteria to protect VMEs and conduct impact assessments.