Will new bottom trawling rules do enough to protect South Pacific seamounts?

Will new bottom trawling rules do enough to protect South Pacific seamounts?

  • The South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO) is an intergovernmental body that regulates fishing across the vast international waters of the South Pacific Ocean.
  • At a meeting in Manta, Ecuador, in February, the SPRFMO changed its rules around bottom trawling, a controversial fishing practice that involves dragging fishing gear along the seabed, running roughshod over any organisms or structures in its path.
  • The new rules mandate the protection of at least 70% of species that indicate the presence of so-called vulnerable marine ecosystems, such as sponge fields and cold-water coral communities.
  • However, conservationists have decried the new rules, calling them less protective than the current policy, let alone the ban on trawling seamounts they’ve been asking for.

Environmental advocates have long called for a ban on bottom trawling on seamounts in the South Pacific’s international waters, and they hoped one would finally be instituted at a regional meeting in Manta, Ecuador, in February. But the trawling, which has declined in scale over the last decade, will be permitted to go on.

Bottom trawling involves dragging heavy nets and trawl “doors” along the seabed that run roughshod over any organisms or structures in their path; scientists have compared it to clear-cutting a forest.

Instead of a ban, the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO), an intergovernmental body that regulates fishing in the area, changed bottom trawling rules in a way that’s left observers debating whether it will provide more or less protection than the current policy.

The new rules focus on vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs), such as sponge fields and cold-water coral communities, which are often located around seamounts. They mandate the protection of a minimum of 70% of VME-indicator species, or groups of species, introducing such a threshold for the first time. The rules rely on habitat modeling to try to determine where VMEs are or could be, so trawling can be restricted there. The models are based largely on data about the bycatch that trawling nets have brought up in the past, as well as on some direct surveys by research vessels.

The rules, which will go into effect next year, were proposed by Aotearoa New Zealand, the only country bottom trawling in the waters under the SPRFMO’s jurisdiction in recent years, and Australia, which has sent a single trawler to the area’s high seas in certain years.

Bottom trawlers fish on parts of the Norfolk Ridge and Lord Howe Rise seamount chains in the Tasman Sea. Image by Ulrich Lange, Bochum, Germany via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0).

About 99.9% of the South Pacific high seas have already been closed to trawling, which is only allowed in designated areas, and the incoming system will reduce those designated areas in size by about half, James Brown, the international fisheries manager at New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), which led the country’s delegation to Manta, told Mongabay in an emailed statement.

But environmental campaigners have criticized the new system, calling it less protective than current policy, let alone the ban on trawling seamounts they’re asking for. They say the 70% figure is “arbitrary” and has no basis in law or science, and that it leaves the remaining 30% of VMEs open to destruction. They also argue that the 99.9% statistic is misleading, as most of that area isn’t possible to trawl.

“There’s no international law or policy that allows you to protect only 70% of VMEs,” Duncan Currie, a legal adviser to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, an umbrella group of NGOs, who attended the conference in Manta, told Mongabay.

“We need to prevent adverse impacts on all VMEs,” he said. “There’s no science showing 30% is OK.”

Moreover, Currie said, the data on VMEs is insufficient for the incoming system to be effective — that it’s not possible even to know what the denominator for the 70% figure should be because the total number and extent of VME habitats, and exactly what organisms live inside them, remains unknown.

Legal protection for VMEs is well established, having been inscribed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2006 and written into many international and regional agreements. In the South Pacific, as in other regions, if an industrial fishing vessel hauls up enough coral or other VME-indicator species as bycatch in its nets, the captain must report the incident and move on to another location. The so-called “move on” rule remains in place under the new SPRFMO rules. It’s the “only saving grace,” though the thresholds for moving on remain way too high, Currie said.

Campaigners say the rule change is rooted in commercial interests. They highlight the fact that a paper submitted to the SPRFMO by New Zealand and Australia that laid the groundwork for the change cites economic and environmental “trade-offs.” They say this goes against international marine environment law, which “makes no exception for economic advantages,” according to a white paper written by the DSCC and other environmental NGOs in advance of the meeting in Manta, which ran from Feb. 7-17.

However, the New Zealand government argues that international law does allow for consideration of fisheries interests. “[It] provides flexibility to regional fisheries management organisations to determine the most appropriate environmental protection measures within their unique contexts,” Brown of the MPI told Mongabay.

Gorgonian coral brought up by a New Zealand bottom trawler.
Gorgonian coral bycatch brought up by a New Zealand bottom trawler in 2003. Image courtesy of New Zealand’s former Ministry of Fisheries via Greenpeace.

Campaigners blame the MPI for failing to introduce tighter restrictions on trawling, in both international and New Zealand waters. “In most cases, they [MPI] defend the interests of industry,” Karli Thomas, the DSCC’s national coordinator, told Mongabay.

However, the bottom trawling industry didn’t publicly support the adoption of the new rules at the SPRFMO, at least not compared to current policy.

In fact, the leading industry lobby group publicly opposed the change. The High Seas Fisheries Group (HSFG), chaired by a manager of Talley’s, a New Zealand-based seafood company, argued in a white paper that the SPRFMO’s focus should be preventing negative impacts; the switch to focusing on protecting certain threshold of VME habitat “will produce inconsistent and illogical” results, it said.

The HSFG said the precedent would be bad for other fisheries, likening it to a governing body asserting that “It doesn’t matter how few seabirds your fishery actually captures; because captures are not zero, we need to prohibit longline fishing in 70% of the area inhabited by seabirds.”

Bottom trawling in the South Pacific high seas has been limited in recent years; indeed, the HSFG paper refers to it as “2 or 3 vessels going out for a few weeks per year.” But campaigners say it’s still consequential.

“Even at small levels of catch, there can still be a big impact on vulnerable marine ecosystems,” Thomas of the DSCC said.

Moreover, bottom trawling could expand in SPRFMO waters in the future. The New Zealand-based trawling industry, comprising a handful of companies, receives more annual permits from the MPI than it uses, and it can opt to use more if fishing costs go down. Also, the industry stands to benefit if the SPRFMO enacts a new proposal to let national fleets carry over more of their unused catch quota into future years than the 10% it currently allows. The proposal was referred to the SPRFMO Scientific Committee for consideration during discussions at the meeting in Manta.

However, another decision at the meeting may restrict bottom trawling: policymakers reduced by about half the allowable catch of orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus), a deepwater fish that the trawlers target, at key sites. New Zealand proposed the reduction based on new assessments of orange roughy stocks. Campaigners told Mongabay that this won’t necessarily result in a proportional reduction in fishing impact on marine habitat: that depends on fishing effort because even trawls that don’t catch orange roughy can do damage.

When it comes to the new rules protecting VMEs, the details remain to be worked out. The SPRFMO Scientific Committee will begin to draw new boundaries for bottom fishing later this year, with input from the MPI. Some possible boundary “scenarios” have already been released.

Banner image: An orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus), a species that can live 200 years and is commonly fished by New Zealand trawlers. Image by NOAA Photo Library via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).


Watling, L., & Norse, E. A. (1998). Disturbance of the seabed by mobile fishing gear: A comparison to forest clearcutting. Conservation Biology, 12(6), 1180-1197. doi:

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