Bottom Trawling: Taking a Bulldozer to the Ocean Floor

Deep sea coral before and after trawling (CC)


Bottom trawling or dredging, describes the practice of fishing along the sea floor, using large, heavy, industrial scale steel plates or rollers. It often takes place in the high seas, located beyond the continental shelf of any country and lies beyond any national jurisdiction. These areas make up over half the areas of the Earth and are thought to host the highest biodiversity on the planet and yet most threatened, most vulnerable and least protected ecosystems on earth. 

Since bottom trawling literally pulverises everything in its path, it has been shown to not only damage or destroy long-lived species such as corals and sponges, but also to harm the complexity of the seabed, reducing species diversity and faunal biomass.2 Given the slow growth rates of habitat-forming corals, which may take hundreds of years to develop, observations show that it is likely that such ecosystems will recover only very slowly if at all.3 In many areas, even many years after the cessation of fishing, there is no evidence of recovery.4  The impact has been compared to cutting down a rainforest: what has taken thousands of years to evolve, can be destroyed in a matter of moments, leaving behind a barren wasteland.

Yet governments continue to authorise bottom trawling and companies continue to engage in it, mostly unregulated.5 Even the deep-sea species for which quotas have been established are almost all considered overexploited or depleted.6 According to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, states are, with few exceptions, failing to follow provisions of UN resolutions 61/105 and 64/72.7 As a result, deep-sea stocks continue to be increasingly overexploited and vulnerable marine ecosystems lost forever.

“There is a window in time, and that is now, when we could forever lose a precious ocean heritage, or we could develop the foundation for an enduring legacy, an ocean ethic…an inspired gift from the 20th century to all who follow us.” Dr. Sylvia Earle, Oceanographer

The world’s oceans are already facing immense strain as they are over-fished (a third of fisheries exploited beyond their limit, illegally fished, polluted, suffering acidification) in addition to other threats from climate change. Yet the international community continue to ignore existing conservation, management and regulation and fail to agree stronger, more responsible efforts to restore and protect these oceans. The public however, aware of the pending catastrophe to our oceans’ ecosystems are increasingly concerned for the future of the oceans and are calling for effective intervention.

In March 2013, a global survey found that 80% of respondents said governments should take the needs of future generations into account when deciding how to manage the high seas, and only 5% said they should not.

We know the risks. We should act now to prevent further deterioration, in line with the Future Justice Policy Principles. Bottom trawling threatens the environment, aggravates poverty and inequity, and violates precaution towards natural resources, ecosystems and human health. Absence of clear governance threatens human security and the natural world and the poor pay the price.

In our view, when individuals act despite knowing the threat from their acts to the survival and well-being of ecosystems and future generations – for example, from economic activities or from regulatory approval of such activities, which gravely or irreparably imperil the conditions of survival of a given ecosystem - this should constitute a crime against future generations.

Read other examples of crimes against future generations: Arctic Drilling, Cultural Heritage Destruction, Denying Girls an EducationNuclear Weapons, Casino Finance, Razing the Rainforest

"Yes moko, just like the sea which has to move its tides
so we can collect Kaimoana at certain times.
Rules give harmony to our lives
so we live with
minimum conflicts.
Working in harmony with others, ae moko, it’s nature’s
act of saying,
Let us make music all together
if not in reality — then make it your dream."

WFC Councillor Pauline Tangiora

Future Justice… about thinking and acting differently, based on respect, dignity and mutual trust

…considers not just what is happening now, but the effects of our actions in the years, decades and centuries to come

… is a means of creating new rules for how we live and work, pass laws and run countries

…is the giving of rights to the poorest, the weakest, the ignored, to the planet and to the other living creatures we share it with

…is a protection for all the people yet to be born,  whose lives we are blighting before they have even started

…is about what we do now.  Our actions today will determine the conditions of life for centuries to come