With broad support from government and opposition leaders, a bill was introduced this morning to the Chilean National Congress intended to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems from trawling and other destructive fishing practices that have long-term negative impacts.
The bill, developed and promoted by the international marine conservation group OCEANA, is sponsored by Senators Antonio Horvath, Guido Girardi, José Antonio Gómez, Carlos Bianchi and Baldo Prokurica. The proposal includes recommendations from international organizations such as the United Nations and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), who have called on countries to adopt effective measures to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems in their jurisdictional waters.
"The Chilean ocean has important vulnerable marine ecosystems that are totally exposed to the serious impacts of bottom trawling. The bill that was introduced to the Congress would ensure effective protection of these important ecosystems by limiting the most destructive fishing methods, just as the UN and FAO have vigorously recommended. We hope that Congress quickly passes the bill since some of these areas already show severe damage from the trawling that is taking place in Chile," said Alex Muñoz, executive director of Oceana South America office.
If the bill to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems passes, the responsible government agency would be required to identify these ecosystems in order to later close them from destructive fishing activities. Bottom trawling would be prohibited in areas where seamounts exist until it can be demonstrated scientifically that fishing doesn't negatively affect them. The bill would require that 100% of the trawler fleet has scientific observers on board to collect information about the presence of vulnerable marine ecosystems. It would also allow universities, members of the artisanal and industrial fishing sectors, and civil society organizations to present evidence about the existence of these ecosystems and propose their study, identification and protection.
Oceana stressed that the bill had been sponsored by senators from different political coalitions. "We welcome the broad support that distinct political sectors have given to this proposal. This is an initiative that will benefit the country by protecting valuable marine ecosystems that serve as habitat for important fishing resources, for both the artisanal and industrial", added Muñoz.
Chile's exclusive economic zone is home to various vulnerable marine ecosystems, including at least 118 underwater seamounts and diverse ancient coldwater coral formations. Examples include the underwater seamounts of the Juan Fernández Islands and Nazca Ridge; Salas and Gómez Islands and Easter Island. In these areas more than 40% of some groups of species are endemics -- the highest level for underwater seamounts in the world. These same places contain cold water corals that form banks or reefs as complex and long-lived as their tropical relatives.
The international scientific community has widely documented the serious environmental impacts that trawling has on the seafloor. Bottom trawling consists of the use of heavy nets kept open by doors, weighing as much as several tons each, that drag across large areas of seafloor, destroying many species and causing irreversible damage to important marine habitats. In addition, as one of the least selective fishing methods, the trawl net captures many creatures that aren't the intended catch, which are later discarded into the sea, dead or dying.
According to the United Nations, Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems are those ecosystems particularly susceptible to disruption, to damage or even to destruction due to their physical characteristics, the activities and interactions of the organisms therein and the impacts they suffer from human activities and the surrounding environment.