Laying Waste to the Deep Sea

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Far out on the high seas, on any given day, hundreds of fishing vessels drag huge nets, big enough to snag a 747 jumbo jet, across the ocean bottom, vacuuming up 150-year-old fish, flattening ancient reefs and destroying everything else in their paths.

TIME Magazine’s Ken Stiers writes:

Only the biodiversity of tropical rainforests rivals that of the deep sea — our planet’s largest wilderness — an aquatic wonderland that is now being systematically razed by what is likely the world’s most environmentally destructive business.

The fishing occurs mostly around the ocean’s most unique topographical formations — submarine canyons, mid-oceanic ridges and tens of thousands of seamounts (most are extinct volcanoes) — which support a stunning profusion of endemic species, many of which are yet to be discovered.


Trawlers reduce these habitats to rubble in minutes, undermining the viability of the very fish that brought the vessels there in the first place.

A ‘rapidly growing number of scientific studies documenting [deep-sea] trawling impacts led to the unmistakable conclusion that bottom trawling is the world’s most harmful method of fishing,’ says the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, which comprises leading environmental NGOs around the world and advocates an immediate moratorium on the practice.

But the problem is worsening, say experts, because more and more fishing vessels are heading out to the high seas — traditionally, a fishing free-for-all — to ‘top up’ their load once they’ve hit the quota for their home country’s fishing area, known as an exclusive economic zone.

At the same time, demand keeps rising in wealthy countries for nutritious, and delicious, white-fish meat from species that have become increasingly hard to find closer to shore.

‘All fisheries are turning gradually into deep-sea fisheries because they have fished themselves out of the shallow waters,’ says Robert Steneck, a marine ecologist at the University of Maine. ‘The solution is not going into the deep sea, but better managing the shallow waters, where fish live fast and die young but where the ecosystems have greater potential for resilience.’”