In international waters beyond the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones(EEZs) of coastal countries, many of the fisheries are virtually unregulated. Here fishing fleets operate like roving bandits, using state of the art technologies to plunder the depths.
Deep-water trawlers or draggers account for about 80% of the bottom fishing catch from the high seas. In a few hours, the massive nets that drag the bottom and weigh up to 15 tones, can destroy deep-sea corals and sponge beds that have taken centuries or millennia to grow. The trawlers target fish such orange roughy and grenadiers for food, and sharks for the cosmetic industry. These fish are generally long-lived, slow growing and late maturing so their populations take decades, even centuries to recover.
“In some places skippers have replaced their nets with chains, to take out the corals so they don’t tear the nets. Then they go back and scoop up the fish,” says Murray Roberts of the Scottish Association for Marine Science. Some living corals may date back 1800 years and reefs may be older than the Egyptian pyramids. “The bottom line is that mistakes made now could take over a century to recover, if they are at all reversible,” says Baker
Ironically, this highly destructive form of fishing would be unprofitable without heavy government support. Over $152 million US are paid to deep-sea fisheries. Without these subsidies, global deep-sea fisheries would operate at a loss of $50 million a year. Most of these subsidies are for fuel. The fishing vessels have to travel beyond the 200 mile limit to fish on the high seas and dragging the weighted nets consumes enormous amounts of fuel.
An international team of leading fisheries economists, biologists, and ecologists have called for the abolition of government fuel subsidies that keep deep-sea fishing vessels moving to deeper water.