Will 2022 mark a turning point in the regulation or prohibition of bottom trawling?
A growing number of voices are calling for an end to what has been described as “the worst fishing technique in the world”, bottom trawling. They also call for a profound transformation of this sector, even though around a quarter of the fish consumed in the world are caught using this method, which causes serious damage to the seabed.
In order to provide a solid basis for regulating the practice, some 40 scientists, NGOs, academics and environmental consultants have come together to produce a report, New perspectives on an ancient fishing practice: Scale, context and impacts of bottom trawlingpublished in December 2021.
The study comes at a time when the European Union is developing its action plan to conserve fisheries resources and protect marine ecosystems and when the United Nations has declared 2022 the International Year of Small-Scale Fisheries and Aquaculture.
Bottom trawling yields an estimated catch of 30 million tonnes per year. This figure has been falling since 1989, except in Asia, which each year accounts for almost 50% of the world’s legal catches.
While we know that trawling harms the seabed, that it does not target the species it captures and that it consumes a lot of fuel, scientists are now warning about its impact on the climate. “Recent studies show that bottom trawling releases carbon into the atmosphere and oceans,” said Steve Trent, CEO of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). Equal times.
The “triple bottom line” of bottom trawling
Several reports published by NGOs such as Oceana have already shown the effects of this practice on the populations of the countries where it is most widespread. Thus, the document published in December reaffirms that environmental and social issues are closely linked and must be addressed in parallel to find a lasting solution.
“When scientists think about damage, they think about it in three ways, what’s called the triple bottom line: environmental damage and social damage offset by economic benefits,” said Dr Steve Rocliffe, senior technical advisor at Blue Ventures, tells Equal times.
And the social impact is worrying, especially when long-distance fleets operate, legally or illegally, in waters other than their own, because bottom trawling often takes place less than 12 miles from shore, where boats make 20% of their catches. , putting the industry’s heavyweights in direct competition with small-scale fishermen whose survival often depends on resources caught at sea. This is particularly evident off the coast of Africa, which is the first victim of bottom trawling: more than 90% of legal catches are made in the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of 34 countries by foreign vessels, particularly Chinese or Vietnamese. , but also from countries such as Morocco, the United States or Argentina.
These fishing giants are wreaking havoc in the areas where they operate. Taxes paid to countries that own the waters in which they fish are often negligible.
According to 2019 data published in Coastal bottom trawl fishery in West Africa According to the report, agreements allowing foreign operators to come and fish in West African waters only generated income between 2% and 8% of the estimated landed value of fish and shellfish.
“Bottom trawling has a huge social cost,” says Daniel Pauly, the Sea Around Us program specialist at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Equal times. “Only Senegalese should be allowed to fish in Senegalese waters, not Spaniards, Russians or Chinese.”
This unequivocal position is not shared by everyone. Although the cost to small-scale fishers is indisputable – 100 million people depend on coastal subsistence and small-scale artisanal fishing for their daily food and sustenance – an abrupt cessation of bottom trawling without thorough analysis could, in the short term ultimately generate a degree of global food insecurity by depriving farmers of very affordable fishmeal to feed their livestock and depriving the poor of a cheap and widely available source of nutrition. “It’s an ongoing debate,” says Rocliffe. “But clearly, in the long term, if you destroy the fishery, you are making food insecurity worse.”
Coastal exclusion zones
Economic issues are partly responsible for the lack of progress in regulating the practice. In an effort to find solutions, the Transform Bottom Trawling Coalition, which brings together artisanal fishers, marine companies, environmentalists and scientists, has launched a four-point call to action to try to limit the environmental and social impacts. bottom trawling.
The coalition calls on all coastal states to establish, expand and strengthen Coastal Exclusion Zones (IEZs), where all bottom trawling is prohibited and only small-scale fishers have exclusive access. “Conflicts arise when bottom trawlers and small-scale fishers operate in the same area,” says Tom Collinson of the Transform Bottom Trawling Coalition.
Testimonies collected in Liberia and Senegal illustrate the problems that can arise between artisanal fishermen and large trawlers, such as collisions.
It is estimated that 250 artisanal fishers are killed each year in collisions with trawlers in West Africa, a number that may be greatly underestimated.
Solutions are already being explored in various countries to strengthen IEZs, such as in Guinea Bissau, where the exclusion zone has been extended to 12 miles from the coast, and in Liberia, which has already banned trawlers from operating within three miles from its coast in 2010. .
The Transform Bottom Trawling Coalition also calls on international bodies to ban all bottom trawling in marine protected areas (which are not protected against bottom trawling) and to expand their area.
His third demand is an end to bottom trawling subsidies and the redeployment of that money to support the transition to low-impact fishing methods. The survival of the industry depends largely on state subsidies in the form of fuel tax exemptions and motor subsidies. The United Nations has officially called for a ban on these subsidies since 2015, as this practice encourages overfishing, IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing and associated abuses such as forced labour. “If you take away the money, you take away the problem,” says Rocliffe, because it would prevent, for example, a French boat from fishing in Liberia, since the practice would no longer be profitable. Finally, the coalition is also asking for a license freeze for all new non-trawled areas.
The Transform Bottom Trawling Coalition urges “all coastal states to tackle bottom trawling by 2030 and implement these four requirements,” says Collinson. “We recognize that ending bottom trawling is extremely complex and nuanced. We are therefore not calling for an immediate ban on bottom trawling, but for a fair transition to low impact methods.
It’s time to act
“If we want real transformation and transition of this industry, in the long term, we have to make sure it’s fair,” Steadman says. “We must consider not only the rights of those affected by the practice, but also the rights of people who work in the industry. That’s why we compare this transition to the fossil fuel transition, the economic shift is the same. »
These suggested solutions and avenues of reflection could be taken up by world leaders this year, at the United Nations Ocean Conference, for example, to be held in Portugal in June 2022. But for now, beyond the beautiful statements, no concrete action has yet been taken. taken. “We need to see action taken at the government level,” Collinson says.
“The destruction of the seabed and the impacts on artisanal fishers are not limited to remote and resource-poor countries in West Africa, they are also affecting fishing in European countries and the United States. We need a comprehensive and coherent policy to achieve real change in bottom trawling.
Not everyone is convinced by this approach, and many NGOs and scientists are still campaigning for a total ban on bottom trawling. “It’s impossible to improve on this practice,” says Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia. EFJ’s Trent agrees. “Cheap fish are actually the most expensive because they lead to the destruction of fishing grounds,” he argues. “If we continue like this, we won’t be able to feed the growing number of people on our planet, we won’t be able to maintain the integrity of our ocean ecosystems.” Pauly concludes: “If bottom trawling were introduced today, it would never be allowed. The only reason it is tolerated is that it was introduced 200 years ago.
This article has been translated from French.