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Your Legacy? Protecting the Deep Sea


A bulletin for Members of the European Parliament from the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition of over 70 non-governmental organizations, fishers’ organizations and law and policy institutes committed to protecting the deep sea.

Tomorrow, the European Parliament will vote on a proposal for a new Regulation on fishing for deep-sea stocks in the Northeast Atlantic.  This is a legacy moment, a rare opportunity to thoroughly overhaul and improve a complex, and currently failing, system to conserve and protect one of the most biologically vulnerable and diverse areas of the planet.

The previous edition of this bulletin with background to the vote can be found here.

We will send full voting recommendations in a separate email.

An immense diversity of incredible creatures such as this ‘Dumbo octopus’, about which scientists know very little. This animal, like many others, lays its eggs in the branches of deepwater corals which are destroyed by deep-sea bottom trawlers. Its survival depends on good deep-sea fisheries management.
Photo: David Shale / Claire Nouvian


Responding to the arguments

We would like to respond to a number of the assertions made by deep-water trawl organizations in a memo circulated to MEPs last week.


1. Sand, mud, and gravel deep-sea bottom is safe to trawl?


Many vulnerable habitat forming species live in sand, mud and gravel seabed areas in the deep-sea, including sponges,  corals¸ and xenophyophores – large single celled organisms which provide habitat for small crustaceans and other species. All are vulnerable to the impact of deep-sea bottom trawling on sediment or sandy seabed.  

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) expressed concern over bottom trawling on deep-sea muddy bottoms which can create sediment plumes which will move down current or down slope and potentially smother corals reefs, sponges and other benthic habitat forming organisms.


2. Are all deep-water Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems now protected?

Bottom trawling is prohibited in EU waters surrounding the Azores, Madeira and Canary Islands; however, with some exceptions, it is permitted below 600 metres elsewhere in EU waters. In the international waters of the Northeast Atlantic, the majority of the areas between 600 metres and 1500 metres depth are still open to bottom fishing or ‘exploratory’ bottom fishing.

Much of the deep sea in the Northeast Atlantic has not yet been studied in detail. ICES has indicated that there are many VME species in the Northeast Atlantic but that known or likely locations of most of these species have not yet been identified and mapped in detail. However, two UK-based scientists reviewed the extent to which key habitat forming deep-sea species off Scotland and Ireland. They concluded that only approximately 23% of cold-water Lophelia coral reefs, only 2% of sponge-dominated communities, and only 6% of xenophyophore communities are likely to be located within currently closed bottom fishing areas.

It may be accurate to say that deep-water fishing is prohibited in some areas where Vulnerable Marine Ecosytems (VMEs) are present or likely to occur. However, this is clearly far from the case for all such areas.  


3. Are deep-sea fisheries sustainable?

There are no limits on the catch of 22 of the 46 species in the current deep-sea regulation. Many of these are of commercial value and landed in EU ports. For some, such as smoothheads, rabbit fish, common mora, wreckfish , and bluemouth, ICES states “there are no management objectives for these stocks…No reference points have been defined for these stocks…There are no assessments of these stocks. The knowledge of the biology of the species is insufficient and it is unclear how vulnerable they are to exploitation.” For most of the others, ICES does not provide any information at all.

Of the 24 remaining species in the current EU regulation, most of which are also of commercial value, are managed by TACs and quotas. However the TAC for 18 of them is zero. Seventeen of these are species of deep-sea sharks. Three of the main deep-sea shark species of commercial value are recognized by the IUCN Shark Specialist Group as “endangered” or “critically endangered”. The status of the other 14 species is unknown . However, in spite of the zero quotas, deep-sea sharks continue to be caught as bycatch in deep-sea fisheries in EU waters. The European Commission conducted an extensive review of the catch of deep-sea species by all EU vessels and presented its findings to the Fisheries Committee in June: trawlers took 81% of the bycatch of deep-sea sharks in 2011; the remaining 19% was taken by longline and gillnet vessels.

We know that more than 46 species are caught in EU deep-sea fisheries. A series of deep-sea research cruises between 1977 and 2002 in an area off the southwest coast of Ireland found that 78 species were impacted by deep-sea trawlers. The average decline in the abundance of all of these species was almost 70% as a result of 10-15 years of bottom trawling and bottom gillnet fishing targeting roundnose grenadiers, blue ling, black scabbardfish, orange roughy and deep-sea sharks. The French research institute IFREMER indicated that the French deep-sea trawl fleet took 144 species in 2010 but did not identify the species nor the status of the stocks concerned. The sheer numbers of species impacted by deep-sea trawling, most of which are slow growing, long lived, and highly vulnerable to overexploitation, prompted ICES to conclude in 2008 that “such fisheries tend to deplete the whole fish community biomass.”

There may be a handful of deep-sea species that could be fished sustainably.  However, deep-sea fishing should be done selectively, the fish stocks managed for sustainability, and the fishing gears used should have minimal impact on deep-sea ecosystems. 

More information available on


In Brief
316 scientists call on you to end destructive fishing practices

A message from Richard Branson
See what other high profile supporters are saying here
Can the EU do more to protect deep sea life? Prospect magazine gathered leading experts to discuss the issues
Infographic: What is trawling

Bottom trawls, enormous fishing nets that are dragged across the sea floor, clear-cut everything living in their path.
A message from your constituents
And 730,000 citizens of France
In the papers :  Le Monde FR
Scotsman UK  Wirtschaftswoche DE  
La Repubblica IT   El Economista ES

More coverage from across the EU on
Fast forward to the future in our time machine
Deep-sea bottom trawlers and destroying our oceans and we’re paying them to do it

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