The Beacon

International Talks Underway to Protect North Pacific

Paragorgia coral, aka bubblegum coral, at the Pratt seamount. © NOAA

The U.S. government is nearing the conclusion of international negotiations for the management of fisheries on the high seas of the North Pacific Ocean. These quiet talks have been ongoing since April 2006 and are likely to conclude this week, which has huge implications for the oceans and Oceana’s work in the region.

Oceana has been participating in these meetings as a member of the U.S. delegation since 2007. Oceana’s Pacific Project Manager, Ben Enticknap, is at this week’s meeting in Vancouver, Canada, working to expand Oceana’s approach to freeze the footprint of bottom trawling and protect important ecological areas to international waters.

The negotiations are between the U.S., Canada, Japan, Russia, China, Korea and Taiwan (Chinese Taipei) and are seeking to establish a new fishery management organization to sustainably manage fisheries on the high seas of the North Pacific Ocean, as well as to establish interim measures to protect “vulnerable marine ecosystems” like seamounts, deep-sea corals, sponges and hydrothermal vents from destructive fishing practices.

The United Nations passed resolutions in 2005 calling on nations to take action to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems from destructive fishing practices. Interim measures have already been agreed to for the Northwest Pacific, including the Emperor Seamount chain that spans high seas waters from Hawaii to the far western Aleutian Islands. At the last meeting in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia, the U.S. submitted a proposal for interim measures in the Northeast Pacific designed to protect coral habitats and seamounts in international waters off Alaska, Canada and the U.S. West Coast. 

Researchers exploring these seamounts have made fascinating discoveries of diverse coral and sponge ecosystems. Seamounts, deep-sea corals, hydrothermal vents and cold-water seeps create hotspots for life in the deep ocean. Because animals in these areas are often extremely long-lived and fragile, destructive activities such as bottom trawling can destroy decades or even centuries of growth. Seamounts and vents are also often home to unique species found nowhere else on earth, leading to high likelihood of extinctions if these areas are damaged.

Destructive trawling, which is more like clear-cutting than fishing, has caused considerable damage to deep-sea communities. Trawling can destroy centuries of coral and sponge growth in a single pass, and pulls to the surface myriad unwanted animals that are simply thrown back dead or dying. Until now, virtually no protections have existed on the high seas – two-thirds of the entire ocean – because they fall outside the jurisdiction of any national government.

These ongoing negotiations mark a significant advancement in achieving sustainable international fisheries and habitat conservation on the high seas. It is remarkable to know that many countries are coming together to end unregulated and unmanaged fisheries. Oceana’s work to freeze the footprint of bottom trawling and to protect important ecological areas is now moving forward in international forums. 

This week’s meeting in Vancouver is scheduled to conclude on Friday. We hope there will be agreement on the new convention and measures to protect sensitive ocean habitats. Stay tuned!

For more on deep-sea ecosystems, check out Oceana’s report, Deep Sea Life: On the Edge of the Abyss.


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