North Atlantic fisheries meeting agrees further protective measures, but still not enough, say ecologists

The 37th Annual Meeting of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) concluded on 25 September in Halifax, Canada. Member countries agreed to several measures that will lead to improved ecosystem protection, but did not follow scientific advice provided over the past two years to close a number of deep-sea coral and sponge areas to bottom trawling or to regulate the fishery for alphonsino, a deep-sea species fished on the high seas of the northwest Atlantic.
“This year, NAFO finally closed the seamount loophole,” says Susanna Fuller, Marine Conservation Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, and an official observer to NAFO. “NAFO closed seamounts to bottom trawl fishing in 2006, but the reality is that they all remained open to “exploratory” fishing. We’re very pleased that finally they have been actually closed to bottom fishing, period.”

A decade on from landmark UN resolution
Next year will mark a decade since the United Nations General Assembly adopted a landmark resolution committing high seas fishing nations to close or otherwise prevent damage to sensitive deep-sea ecosystems from bottom trawling and requiring environmental impact assessments for all deep-sea fishing activities. The UN General Assembly has scheduled a review in the autumn of 2016 of the actions NAFO and individual high seas fishing nations have taken to implement the UN resolutions as well as a review the implementation of the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement.

Areas that still need to be closed
“There are still several areas where scientists have found concentrations of deep-water corals, sponges, seapens that have not been closed to fishing. We are hoping with new information from research surveys, countries can reach agreement next year to close these fisheries,” says Fuller. “We are also disappointed that NAFO failed to regulate a midwater trawl fishery for alphonsino on a small number of seamounts, despite EU proposals to do so.”
On the basis of proposals from the European Union, NAFO agreed to require gear modification for midwater trawls to ensure the gear does not damage the sea floor. NAFO also agreed to collection data on all bycatch and to follow scientific advice in setting quotas for the majority of fish stocks managed by NAFO. Despite growing support from several countries and proposed by the European Union and the United States, NAFO did not agreed to strengthen the ban on shark finning by prohibiting at-sea removal of shark fins.

Data-sharing green light?
As part of a broader approach to ecosystem management and transparency, NAFO agreed to explore data sharing and more open communication with other governance organizations on the high seas – including, but not limited to, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) as well as continued outreach on potential oil and gas impacts particularly in areas that have been protected from fishing activity.
“NAFO continues to move in the right direction but still has a considerable way to go to ensure the protection of deep-sea habitats and the conservation of deep-sea fish species,” said Matthew Gianni, co-founder and political advisor of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. “We are pleased to see that NAFO has closed seamounts to bottom fishing and we urge NAFO members, in particular the European Union, to finish the job of managing the deep-sea fisheries in the region consistent with the UN resolutions and international law in time for the UN General Assembly review in 2016.”