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Opinion: Deep sea fishing is 'oceanocide'

By Claire Nouvian, for CNN
  • Deep sea bottom trawling is wiping out ancient coral reefs, says Nouvian
  • Importance of seabed to ocean biodiversity should not be underestimated
  • Main fishing nations are responsible for devastating fishing practices, she says
  • Nouvian calls for UN protection of high seas and consumers to shun deep sea fish

Claire Nouvian is an author, journalist and underwater filmmaker. Here she expresses her opinion on the international deep sea fishing industry

CNN -- Fewer than 300 boats in the world are destroying the deep sea, the largest reservoir of biodiversity on Earth.

They are wiping off the map deepwater coral reefs and sponge beds thousands of years old as they chase their lucrative quarry: a few highly priced fish, known to be extremely vulnerable to over-fishing because they are long-lived, slow-growing and late at reproducing.

The entirety of the deep-sea catch, without exception, is sold to rich industrialized countries that certainly don't need those fish. And deep-sea bottom trawling continues despite a scientific consensus that emphasizes how utterly unsustainable and destructive this fishing practice is.

In blatant ignorance of science and oblivious to common sense, bottom trawling -- or "bulldozing," as it should be called -- goes on with the complicity of our governments and our own support.

Video: Aliens of the deep
Uprooting ancient corals with trawl-nets is like exhuming an Egyptian mummy and throwing it in the trash.
--Claire Nouvain, author, filmmaker

Large subsidies are paid to trawling fleets with our tax money. Every one of us is thus paying for industrial-scale ships to go out and pillage our planet's last pristine wilderness, contributing to an unprecedented "oceanocide", the largest and fastest ecological crime of all time.

The deep ocean is home to a diversity of animals beyond anything our brain can handle, comprising millions of new species yet to be discovered.

Wherever deep-sea trawlers pass, they remove 98 to 100 percent of what's on the seafloor: sponges and corals, of course, but also all sorts of animals.

Uprooting 4,000-year old corals with trawl-nets and dumping them off the side of the ship as ocean waste is akin to exhuming Egyptian mummies and disposing of them as trash.

Fish are typically the last wild items on our dinner menu, along with a few mushroom species. Harvesting wild resources means being in tune with what nature can give, as opposed to what we have planned to get from it.

So what can the deep sea give us?

A scientist has calculated that "sustainable" fishing in the deep Central Pacific would mean each ship would catch one fish a day. This encourages investors to "mine" fish populations rather than to exploit them sustainably.

Whale hunting followed the same logic, or fossil fuels, the ultimate non-renewable energy resource. It takes millions of years for organic material to decay and morph into hydrocarbons and only a few decades for us to burn them into smoke.

Think of deep-sea animals the same way.

The deep ocean is home to an almost unimaginable diversity of life.
--Claire Nouvian, author and filmmaker

Deep-sea bottom trawling is the result of a massive collective failure to sustainably manage productive areas and fish stocks in the shallow ocean.

So why are the 10 fishing nations that are accountable for 80 percent of all deep-sea fishing covering the back of a few private destructive endeavors?

Aren't our governments supposed to defend the common good against individual interests?

All it would take is cutting the oil subsidies given to these fleets. This would so strongly jeopardize the profitability of the fishing operations that they would inevitably cease. Instead of that, states are pumping public funds into keeping those few ships afloat, using the ignorance of the public as a tacit benediction of their inexcusable environmental crime.

That diverted use of public money without the explicit consent of taxpayers constitutes an environmental "odious debt" that will eternally shame governments that failed to put a halt to deep-sea bottom fishing.

An odious debt, as legal theorist Alexander Sack first pointed out, serves to fund actions that go against the public interest. In other words, our governments must acknowledge past mistakes and buy back deep-sea bottom trawlers to dismantle them.

If worse comes to worst, if the ten main bottom trawling nations continue to act contrary to scientific evidence and common sense, can't the other 180 or so nations at the UN just impose a ban on deep-sea bottom trawling?

Let's bear in mind that we will all suffer equally from the mass destruction of biodiversity and from the correlated absence of resilience of the oceans when climate change hits us really hard.

As fishing nations have failed so badly at ensuring sustainability and non-destructiveness of high-seas bottom fishing operations, it is time to declare them incompetent at equitably managing the common good of humanity.

What we, as consumers and citizens, must urgently do is ban all types of deep-sea fish, once and for all, from our menus. We should ask the United Nations General Assembly to set aside the whole of the high seas as a Marine Protected Area.

Any fishing operation seeking to tap the free-for-all resources would be obligated to produce a scientifically sound management plan demonstrating that their activities would not jeopardize the future of the planet nor infringe upon other nations' interests.

At minimum, every government implicated in this dirty business should seek public approval for their use of public money by means of a referendum.