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The South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO) has given the green light to destroying 30% of vulnerable deep-water corals and sponges and failed to protect hotspots for life in the deep. 

The annual meeting of the inter-governmental body, charged with regulating high seas fishing in the South Pacific, came to a close on Friday 17th February. It bowed to pressure from the New Zealand government to allow it to continue deep-sea trawling on seamounts, permitting the destruction of up to 30% of vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) and turned its back on commitments made to the United Nations and most recently the Biodiversity Convention.

Calls from civil society for the phasing out of bottom trawl fishing on seamounts on the high seas continue to grow louder. The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) has been present throughout the annual forum, held in Manta, Ecuador.

Deep below the ocean’s surface, underwater mountains or ‘seamounts’ provide a critical role in keeping our ocean healthy, influencing currents and nutrient circulation, and supporting rich webs of life.

New Zealand, the only state to still bottom trawl on seamounts in the high seas within the South Pacific region, were successful in pushing a measure that will permit destructive bottom trawl fishing to continue on seamounts on the high seas. In advocating for that outcome New Zealand received strong support from Australia and the Cook Islands. During the negotiations, the European Union, United States and Chile expressed a preference for higher precautionary thresholds but ultimately accepted New Zealand’s proposal to ensure adoption of the Bottom Fisheries Conservation measure.

The DSCC’s International Legal Advisor, Duncan Currie, representing the DSCC in Manta, Ecuador,  throughout the negotiations commented that: “The measure pushed forward by New Zealand undermines UNGA resolutions and is in breach of its own Convention and the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS)..”  

Duncan Currie told the meeting that:

“We are in no doubt that this is contrary to the UNGA bottom fishing resolutions, the FAO Guidelines, the SPRFMO Convention, UNCLOS and the Fish Stocks Agreement. Even worse, it is directly contrary to the commitments to protect biodiversity that States here have signed up to. 

These include the Leaders Pledge for Nature, the G20 Bali Leaders Declaration

and their commitment to strengthen actions to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030

and most recently the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework only 2 months ago.”

Barry Weeber, representing ECO-NZ at the meeting called on the organization to “ promote the protection of biodiversity instead of facilitating biodiversity damage for the sake of a small and declining industry.”

Global Seamounts Campaign Lead for the DSCC, Bronwen Golder also commented: “In not rejecting New Zealand’s proposal, SPRFMO member States have failed to seize a unique opportunity to stop a destructive, sunset industry that we do not need in our ocean. However, the interventions of the EU, US and Chile have provided SPRFMO with the opportunity to lift  the adopted measure to a higher standard in 2024. That is a significant signal to New Zealand that the clock is ticking on bottom trawling on the high seas”.  

Next week in New York, the fifth, and many hope final, session of negotiations will take place at the United Nations for a new global treaty for the “conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction”. A number of high seas fishing nations have argued that this new treaty should not “undermine” the authority of regional fisheries management organisations such as SPRFMO to manage fisheries on the high seas. But the deep-sea fisheries regulation adopted by SPRFMO this week clearly demonstrates the need for the opposite.

Matthew Gianni, Political and Policy Advisor for the DSCC, who attended the meeting virtually, added: “No matter how you slice it or dice it, this fishery is one of the most unsustainable and biologically destructive fisheries on the planet. SPRFMO has yet again failed to implement long-standing commitments and obligations under international law to conserve and protect deep-sea biodiversity on seamounts, deep ocean corals and other vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems in areas beyond national jurisdiction by allowing New Zealand to continue to trawl in these areas. In cases like this, the new global treaty should surely establish a mechanism to step in and take control of the management of these fisheries when a regional fisheries management organisation, such as SPRFMO this week, fails to ensure the conservation of marine biodiversity but rather knowingly authorises its destruction.”


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The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) is made up of over 100 non government organizations, fishers organizations and law and policy institutes working together to ensure the protection and resilience of vulnerable deep sea ecosystems for future generations.