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Destructive fishing practices in the high seas and the protection of ecosystems

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Destructive fishing practices in the high seas and the protection of ecosystems

Destructive fishing practices in the high seas pose a threat to fragile deep sea ecosystems. The Commission is proposing a strategy to strengthen international activity within the framework of the United Nations, Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) and international agreements for protection of vulnerable deep sea habitats.


Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions of 17 October 2007 on destructive fishing practices in the high seas and the protection of vulnerable deep sea ecosystems [COM(2007) 604 final - not published in the Official Journal].


The Commission is proposing an ambitious strategy for the protection of fragile ecosystems in the high seas based on the precautionary principle and on prior impact assessment. This also responds to the appeal launched by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in Resolution 61/105 to regulate fisheries in vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems.

Destructive fishing practices in the high seas

The biodiversity and equilibrium of deep-sea marine ecosystems are at threat from human activity. Bottom fishing practices and gears (bottom trawls, dredges, bottom-set gillnets, etc.) may cause irreversible damage to vulnerable marine habitats. Activities such as the production of hydrocarbons, laying of submarine cables or waste dumping, etc. pose other threats.

This finding is based on studies which demonstrated damage to deep coral reefs in the Northeast Atlantic, the West Atlantic and the Tasman Sea.

These activities are also likely to put achievement of the objectives of the 2002 Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development at risk.

Action of the European Union

The action of the European Union (EU) is guided by recommendations made in United Nations Resolution 61/105 for the protection of the vulnerable deep-sea marine environment. This resolution, to which the Commission made an active contribution, calls on Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) and States to adopt and implement measures by 31 December 2008, in accordance with the precautionary principle, ecosystem approaches and international law. These measures define a management system for bottom fishing in the high seas which is based on:

  • impact assessment prior to authorisation of fishing activities;
  • identification of vulnerable marine ecosystems through research and data collection;
  • closure of sensitive areas.

This strategy proposes the ways to implement these recommendations and to go further.

The EU must provide impetus on a global scale for protection of vulnerable deep-sea marine ecosystems, in particular by stimulating international debate. It will support creation of a report on the progress made in the fight against destructive fishing practices which will be presented to the United Nations in 2009. In addition, the EU will further assist the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in compiling and disseminating reliable information on the measures adopted by the Member States. This information will be used as a foundation for technical guidelines for deep sea fisheries. Similarly, collaboration with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Regional Marine Conventions will help identify the marine habitats under threat.

RFMOs already exist in the majority of high-seas areas. Ecosystem protection measures have been adopted in these areas, but they must be complemented by a systematic and preventive approach for managing environmental risks. To achieve a high and effective level of protection against damage related to fishing activities, the RFMOs may apply stricter rules to reinforce the protection.

Before the creation of an RFMO, interim measures may be implemented by the States for the conservation and management of zones affected by bottom fishing. The EU is backing this approach as part of ongoing negotiations on the implementation of a new RFMO in the South Pacific. It is also undertaking to help develop interim measures in the Indian Ocean in preparation for an agreement in 2008 and transpose them into Community legislation. In areas where no RFMO is yet in place, the EU is encouraging the launching of negotiations between the parties interested in establishing these organisations.

In areas of the high seas not regulated by an RFMO, bottom fishing activities by Community vessels should be governed by the regulation accompanying this Communication (see Related Acts). This Regulation, which is scheduled for adoption in 2008, implements the United Nations recommendations in respect of these vessels. It stipulates that Community vessels must obtain a special fishing permit for bottom fishing in these areas, which will only be issued after an impact assessment. This should assess the risk of adverse effects on vulnerable marine ecosystems caused by the fishing in question on the basis of detailed operation plans. It also lays down the requirements relating to monitoring and control, for example the presence of on-board observers, and satellite monitoring (VMS) provisions. In addition, it proposes banning the use of bottom fishing gears at depths greater than 1 000 metres. Vessels authorised to fish should also inform the competent authorities of sites with vulnerable ecosystems which they may discover during their operations so that they can be protected if necessary.


The commitment made in Johannesburg positions the issue of destructive fishing practices in a global context. Fisheries must no longer be considered in isolation, but must be fully integrated into a broader sustainability perspective, including the high seas. This is also the approach taken by the Commission's current proposals for an integrated maritime policy. The EU is determined to follow the principles established in United Nations Resolution 61/105 on the sustainability of fisheries adopted in December 2006.


Council Regulation (EC) No 734/2008 of 15 July 2008 on the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems in the high seas from the adverse impacts of bottom fishing gears [Official Journal L 201 of 30.070.2008].

Last updated: 27.10.2011