If we are sincere about protecting our ocean and its resources, we must end bottom trawling.
This week, on Nov 21, we celebrate World Fisheries Day and if we are sincere about protecting our ocean and its resources, we must end bottom trawling. The fact that the EU still allows this most destructive of fishing practices to take place within protected areas is an appalling lack of judgement.
Our ocean is already under siege: 90% of the planet’s fish populations are now either fully exploited or overfished by an industry fuelled by unsustainable subsidies; as much as 13 million tons of plastic enters the ocean every year; and less than 1% of our seas are properly protected. But out of all the ways that we exploit and degrade our seas, bottom trawling is among the worst.
In this incredibly destructive practice, trawlers drag weighted nets – that can be as large as a football field – across the seafloor, catching everything in their path and obliterating irreplaceable habitats.
This is catastrophic for wildlife: everything from turtles to starfish are scooped up, and deep-sea coral forests, which can take centuries to form, are completely erased, along with the unique array of wildlife they host. Over the past 65 years alone, bottom trawlers have discarded overboard more than 400 million tonnes of untargeted marine life.
Yet this practice is not only destroying our planet, it is robbing many of irreplaceable livelihoods and eroding human rights in the most vulnerable of communities.
Around the world, over 100 million people rely on small-scale fishing for their food and livelihoods. These trawlers are taking fish that should be the staple catch of local people at the same time as they destroy marine ecosystems.
Our recent investigations in Ghana showed that the fundamental human rights of fishing communities, such as the right to adequate food and decent work, are being threatened by the government’s failure to tackle overfishing and illegal fishing by industrial trawlers.
Aside from simply hoovering up fish, bottom trawlers destroy the very infrastructure of a sustainable fishery. Habitats like coral reefs and seagrass beds provide vital nurseries for juveniles of a wealth of fish species. In fact, over 20% of the most commercially important fish species occupying seagrass meadows at critical stages of their development.
Finally, and in these two weeks of COP26, very relevantly, bottom trawling is also hastening climate breakdown. This practice churns up the seabed, releasing vital stores of carbon that have lain safely locked away for centuries. This releases an estimated one billion tonnes of CO2 every year, an amount comparable to emissions from the entire aviation sector.
Despite this trail of destruction, almost nothing has been done. Even the EU, which has led progressive efforts to improve sustainability in fisheries, still allows bottom trawling within protected areas.
Industrial bottom trawling must end now. Governments all over the world should establish, expand and strengthen national inshore exclusion zones which ban bottom trawling and safeguard the area for small-scale fisheries, as the government of Madagascar recently did.
All subsidies should be removed from bottom-trawling vessels, and the money used to phase the practice out entirely. Lastly, it shouldn’t have to be said, but unbelievably it needs to be: bottom trawling should be immediately banned in any protected areas.
Steve Trent is founder and CEO of the Environmental Justice Foundation.