From: Reuters, Jeremy Smith
Published October 17, 2007 09:46 AM

EU Seeks Tough Controls on Deep-Water Trawlers

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Deep-water trawlers that fly a European Union country flag and wish to use huge nets and dredging to scoop up fish from sea beds outside EU waters may soon face far tighter rules that aim to protect the environment.

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As species like cod and hake become depleted in the European Union by overfishing, deep-water species such as forkbeard, orange roughy and black scabbardfish are an attractive catch as trawlers move to new fishing grounds.

Environmental groups say fishing techniques such as bottom trawling and towed dredging destroy unique and fragile deep-sea life, especially in areas like coral reefs and seamounts, to catch what amounts to a small number of fish.

A bottom trawl is a cone-shaped net that is towed by one or two boats across the sea floor, its pointed end retaining all the fish that are scooped up. It can cause damage to extremely slow growing ecosystems, particularly coral reefs, and also depletes other marine life that is captured by the nets.

EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg is proposing stricter rules to control bottom trawling in an attempt to regulate EU-flagged vessels when they moved onto the high seas.

For areas not yet covered by U.N.-licensed regional fisheries management organizations, or RFMOs, the Commission wants all vessels, both EU and non-EU, to stop using what it calls "destructive fishing practices" in waters where there may be a sensitive ecology.

Borg's idea is for the EU's bottom trawlers to obtain a fishing permit from their national government before sailing, subject to strict conditions such as a prior environment impact assessment, compulsory satellite monitoring and detailed plans that include proposed location, depth and targeted species.

There would be strict penalties for breaking rules and a maximum depth of 1,000 meters for bottom trawling.

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The European Commission has long argued for tighter curbs on bottom trawling and in 2006 urged the United Nations to ban the practice. U.N. negotiators failed to reach a deal in the face of strong opposition from a handful of nations led by Iceland.

The 27 EU states have a sizable fleet of bottom-trawling vessels in areas not regulated by a RFMO, especially in the southwest Atlantic due to a continuing dispute between Britain and Argentina over territorial waters after the 1982 Falklands War.

This standoff had "made it impossible to agree on the establishment of a regional management regime for straddling stocks in this area and it is unlikely that these difficulties can be overcome in the near future," a Commission document said.

In 2005, EU fisheries ministers banned bottom trawling the sea bed around Madeira, the Azores and Canary Islands, territories of Portugal and Spain, to save their coral reefs from destruction.

Coral reefs are one of the oldest types of living systems on the planet and are a crucial sea habitat, along with related ecosystems such as mangroves and sea grass beds. They act as a nursery for much of the biodiversity of the oceanic system.

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