Chile Becomes First Country to Protect All Seamounts From Bottom Trawling


My interest was piqued last week from a post on that National Geographic Website (blog) which featured this story last week (14 January, 2013) by a guest blogger Alex Muñoz (chief executive of Oceana)….

Oceana and National Geographic are currently on a scientific expedition to Sala y Gomez Island and Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui).  Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced the creation of a 150,000 square kilometer no-take marine reserve around Sala y Gómez Island in the Pacific Ocean to protec marine biodiversity and  marine habitat  (of which much has never been explored)

Photo from an Oceana and National Geographic scientific expedition to Sala y Gomez Island and Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui).
In 2010 Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced the creation of a 150,000 km2 no-take marine reserve around Sala y Gómez in the Pacific Ocean to protect marine biodiversity and marine habitat (of which much has never been explored).

The story is written with a certain amount of nationalistic pride, that comes from being proud of one’s country passing and implementing laws that many other countries would not dare pass and  implement.

I’m happy to start 2013 by sharing some inspiring news from my country, Chile, one of the world’s top fishing nations. The good news is that our Government and National Congress, following campaigning by Oceana, overhauled our fishing laws by banning bottom trawling in all vulnerable marine ecosystems (including all seamounts in Chile), requiring the implementation of reduction plans for by-catch and discards of ocean species, and ensuring that fishing quotas are based on science rather than politics.

The new legislation makes Chile the first country to protect all its seamounts from bottom trawling, a destructive practice that bulldozes ocean habitat in pursuit of a few target species on the seafloor. This vicious fishing method destroys precious habitats on seamounts, including remarkable coral gardens which can take centuries to form. But thanks to the Chilean Congress, all 118 seamounts in Chile are now closed to bottom trawling.

To most of us who read this – at first blush this is a commendable initiative. It is following on from some of the ‘remarkable’ things that have occurred within the EEZs of a number of States including Australia, Kiribati, and even New Zealand which at present has closed 30+% of its EEZ to bottom trawling in 2007 and closed ~20 Seamounts to all fishing in 2001.

Branch Coral on a Chilean Seamount. Oceana

Branch Coral on a Chilean Seamount. Oceana

But has Chile may have gone a little too far?…

According to a report presented to Chilean lawmakers by Oceana, in the past decade catch limits for three of Chile’s major fisheries – anchovy, jack mackerel, and hake – far exceeded scientific recommendation (by 78 percent, 87 percent, and 193 percent, respectively) and as a result, this blatant overfishing greatly endangered the future viability of these resources. Under the new law, fishing quotas will be decided by independent scientific committees, without participation of the fishing industry.  This means that Chile’s catch will no longer exceed scientific recommendations and will, hopefully, become sustainable.

Two issues immediately come to mind when I read the quote above:

    1. The implicit definition of sustainability used in this blog piece by Muñoz; and
    2. The setting of catch limits by an independent panel scientists

1. Sustainability: This word is one of those words that this misapplied, misappropriated thrown around everywhere without a care. Consequentlty the definition of sustainable has morphed into all sorts of different things due to this global game of ‘Chinese whispers’.

It is important to remember that foundational global principles like sustainability are derived from international treaties and international cooperation. In a post in February last year (click here to view) I wrote:

...The definition of sustainability that emerged as a result of the Rio Declaration of 1992, continues to to drive my own conception of what is sustainable and what is not. If one is acquainted with principle from its building blocks – like this one, that has subsequently formed the foundational definition of sustainability in many other international instruments like Agenda 21  – one will be able to avoid the politically positioning and emotive rhetoric that too often surrounds issues of Social equityEconomic Development and Environmental Interaction that are the domain of the sustainability principle.

 The definition of sustainability emerged from the premise that “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

So in the context of Chile’s Fisheries Law reform, a fishery management programme driven primarily on ‘scientific conservation ‘ is inconsistent with the international definition of sustainability. This then leads to the second issue:

2. Catch Limits set by scientists without participation of the fishing industry: I cannot see this as beneficial to Chile’s fishing industry. Fisheries scientists are experts  at estimating stock abundances from surveys, acoustics and statistical models; some are experts in marine ecology, oceanography, productivity or fur seal biology. They are fisheries scientists not fisheries managers – consequently they are not versed in the balancing of environmental, economic and social needs [see definition of sustainability] which fisheries management requires. These new rules will result in the environmental component outweighing the other sustainable components.

Furthermore these new rules not only isolate the seafood industry, they denigrate it. They subjugate the interests of fishers to be below that of the fisheries and environmental scientists and imply that fishers have no concept of fisheries management.  This is in contrast with other states that have either implemented or are exploring closer integration, between scientific providers, government and industry.

This is definitely the case in New Zealand where in many cases the public/private partnerships have blurred the lines so much that each individual sector now relies on the other for certain aspects of fishery management. This approach is beginning to yield fabulous results in New Zealand, which other states have noticed. The other day I spoke to a representative from the UK who is studying New Zealand’s inter-sectoral collaborative management approach to inform a report that will recommend reforms in the UK.

I don’t understand why Chile is implementing an adversarial process for setting catch limits. I don’t know why they are denigrating the fishing industry. Fishers are experts in knowing where fish are located, how they interact with vessels and how vessels interact with the environment. They are the people who are out on the high seas doing it. They are an integral part of the fishery management process, and omitting them is a little foolish. Setting catch limits in isolation from the fishing industry tells me that these reforms have a limited shelf life. Despite the good intentions they are not going to work.

 Fur Seals hanging out in a Chilean Fishing Port

Fur Seals hanging out in a Chilean Fishing Port

Where I do applaud the overhaul of Chile’s fisheries legislation is with regard to the implementation of operational controls:

… The law [also] requires fishermen to reduce by-catch, which is the incidental catch of species not targeted by the fishing industry. It results in huge amounts of fish and other marine life being thrown back into the ocean, dead or dying. All fisheries must now create plans to reduce by-catch and take added measures to protect species like marine mammals, turtles, and seabirds that are incidentally caught.

Firstly, I agree that the careful management of the effects of fishing on other species which include by-catch and species that interact with fishing vessels, is not only sustainable but also responsible.

Secondly, I acknowledge the separation in this article by Muñoz of by-catch from incidental interactions, and commend him for doing so. This separation is not only accurate and current it is also fundamental for managing the environmental effects of fishing. So often eNGOs lump it all together as by-catch which is misleading, and also undermines management efforts. 

Incidental interactions occur when animals purposefully put themselves in harm’s way to feed on catch that is in nets, attached to longlines, on deck and even at port. Minimising the effects of fishing on species that do this requires a specific and targeted management. Often a completely different ‘health and safety’ approach needs to be implemented on board the fishing vessel, which may involve deploying special mitigation equipment such as ‘warp deflectors’ and ‘bird bafflers’ for seabirds, SLEDs for sea lions and even operation procedures and vessel management plans that control offal release and crew behaviour.

By-catch is ‘stuff’ taken in nets other than target species that are fished that do not put themselves in harm’s way. Things like fishes other than the target species and epi-benthic fauna like gastropods, shellfish and corals.

Although one must keep in mind that some by-catch is anticipated and relied on as part of the catch. In New Zealand (which has the quota management system) fishers for hoki depending on where the hoki is taken will usually catch among other species ling, hake, silver and white warehou, javelinfish, frostfish and spiny dogfish. Each fisher will have quota for all of these species which will be deducted from their total annual quota, and all of these species will be landed and sold.

A final thought! I wonder how Seamounts are defined? I wonder if all 118 close seamounts are 1000m or more in elevation from the sea floor – or have they done what some ecologists have attempted and include all underwater topographical features (UTFs) under the seamount definition, thereby calling hills, knolls and bumps – seamounts.

It would seem essential to recognise the difference between true seamounts (i.e. those underwater features with elevations >1,000 metres) and smaller features such as knolls (i.e. 500 – 1,000 m) and hills (i.e. < 500 m).  After all the inclusion of these much smaller underwater features in a common “seamount” management strategy will inevitably suffer from inappropriate science inputs and in  inappropriate and wrong management outcomes. Its also mischief!

Hmmm maybe a Seamount post is in order ^^


2 thoughts on “Chile Becomes First Country to Protect All Seamounts From Bottom Trawling

  1. Pingback: Chile Proposes World’s Largest Marine Reserve: But proposed and planned in isolation from Indigenous land owners… | Green Fish Blue Fish

  2. I love what you guys tend to be up too. This kind of clever work and reporting!
    Keep up the great works guys I’ve included you guys to my own blogroll.

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