Speaker by Various Artists

Trawl my arse

by James Littlewood

The sea - it's been rightly said - is one hell of a place. I can vouch for this, I've been there and seen it. Proverbially strange. It's a good thing. One of the good things about the sea is fish. One of the bad things about the sea is the removal of fish. Not just fish either, but entire eco systems, by a Quota Management System compliant fishing company near you.

To use the scatologically curious parlance of the industry, it's all about bottom trawling.
This is pretty simple to explain. A lot of stuff grows on the ocean floor. The stuff attracts fish. To catch the fish, you therefore drag a bloody big, bloody heavy net across the ocean floor, and catch the stuff as well.

Trouble is, nobody knows exactly what the stuff consists of. People like Steve O'Shea probably have a better idea than most, so I asked him. One thing that we do know is down there is coral. Not like the little white worm your aunt brought back on a wee plinth from Fiji, but big stuff, up to two metres high, which you can see by clicking on the image library button here, bottom row, centre.

Coral is a slow grower. To reach 2m, that coral was alive 500 years ago, and the coral bed itself could be as old as 2,000 years. You'll notice in the image link above that the coral has been hauled up from the depths. That's not because someone went down and got it. It's because they sent a net down to catch fish, and up it came. That, folks, is environmental destruction.

Greenpeace have been very big on this issue lately. Their campaign draws attention to the damage wrecked by bottom trawling on particular bits of the sea bed called seamounts: literally, mountains under the sea. These vary greatly in size, with some being thousands of miles long. There are scores of thousands of them in the various oceans, many in the Pacific, and hundreds within New Zealand's economic zone. And at least 80% of those, according to Greenpeace, have been trawled at some stage.

The significance of seamounts is that they are alive with biodiversity. Some researchers reckon that up to 15% of all species dwelling on volcanic seamounts are endemic, meaning they are more or less unique to that locality. "More or less" in this case meaning, as Steve put it, that "we found some incredible things, like corals up to a metre long off the west coast, and they were the same as some that were found in Hawaii, but they don't turn up anywhere in between, or anywhere else." That they know of, at least. And that's the point.

Steve is also keen on the idea that this issue goes way beyond seamounts. Deep sea reefs and also the mid sea are equally poorly understood, and equally vulnerable to the destruction caused by commercial fishers.

Some more facts and figures: at typical bottom trawling depths, a 3mm veneer of sediment causes total annihilation of all species after just four days. Coral, sea-weed, crustaceans, everything. So what? Trawl nets stir up sediment. The sediment rises, drift and falls. At least some - if not heaps of it drifts outside the trawl path. Who knows how much? 3mm isn't much sediment.

Another: in the 1960s, 37% of sperm whale diet in the Tasman Sea consisted of commercially caught fish species, the rest was squid. Today, all they eat is squid. The world's second or third largest mammal is no contest for commercial fishing.

Most environmentalists are very, very unhappy about all of this, including 1,136 scientists from all over the world. Which reminds me, I've asked a few fishing companies what their view is, but they don't get back to me. Anyway, the fact is that commercial fishing is stripping away a natural resource fast, with little meaningful regulation. It's like mowing down a few acres of native forest in order to catch a few mutton birds.

The United Nations isn't exactly stoked about it either, and were apparently impressed when Greenpeace's Carmen Gravatt was beamed into an Oceans Committee meeting from the Rainbow Warrior II with footage of bottom trawling in action right behind her, just last month (New Zealand vessels, too). The goal for Greenpeace and a broad coalition of enviro-NGOs is a UN sanctioned moratorium on bottom trawling.

There's also an interesting and concise pdf report by Lisa Speer they tabled here and another by Matthew Gianni, clearly describing both the problem as well as the UN resolutions that mandate action here.

The argument for a moratorium on bottom trawling is that the practice is impacting on a natural resource, about which very little is known, without the faintest trace or the merest hint at anything like renewability or sustainability. The idea is that the industry pauses while the scientists get down there and check it out. Which, of course, goes down with industry like a cup of cold sick.

"Of course it does" says Dean Mercer, also of Greenpeace. "You only have to look at the driftnet moratorium in 1989. The moratorium was to take time to see if it could be done sustainably, and it was decided as a result that it was too destructive, and a total ban was necessary. That's obviously what the industry fears most." While he concedes there are probably "a few small guys out there still doing it," driftnet fishing is now largely a thing of the past.

The moratorium goes before the General Assembly in November. Which means that governments, including - and especially - ours, are thinking about whether to support it or not right now. On the one hand, an orange roughy industry worth $57m a year. On the other, environmental sustainability.

For my part, I can't understand how a so-called Quota Management System that enables entire fisheries to be bought and sold as nothing more nor less than capital property can possibly ensure sustainability. Fishers all claim that because they own the fishery, naturally they'd want to extend its utility as far as possible, but nothing could be less clear. Such a system does nothing to prevent a player from exploiting a fishery for all it's worth in a single season, if that's what the fisher wants.

I admit I'm not an expert on the QMS, but there's more evidence than I can cite that clearly proves that fisheries here and everywhere are declining, and fast. And as they continue to do so, that $57m will decline as well.

There would seem to be every reason to support the moratorium. The only reason not to would be because some fishermen would require - and deserve, say some folks at Greenpeace - compensation.

So, you can help our government make up its mind here and here (BTW: still waiting for someone to return www.govt.nz to the layout it had three years ago. It's still easier to search it from without it) . Underwater video of bottom trawling in action here.

The fishers say they are fishing sustainably. But they are alone in their opinion.

97% of the New Zealand orange roughy population has been fished. Tuna, that stuff in little round cans, is one of the great predators of the ocean. "Dolphin friendly" or not, the species is on its way out. 70% of New Zealand's fish stocks are over exploited.

The long and short of it is, until some independent studies can verify the impact of bottom trawling, it's just not safe to carry on fishing it.