Writing in The Guardian on 21 January, Professor Alex Rogers at the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford outlines why he thinks deep-sea trawling should be banned.
He goes into a variety of reasons including the need to protect cold-water corals, sponge fields and unique underwater habits and species. He says that deep-sea fish provide an important service sequestering large amounts of carbon, and adds that only a handful of UK vessels participate in the fishery, so that any ban would have negligible impact.
Whilst he is certainly right that there are only a few UK boats that operate in the fishery, this rather misses the point. The boats may be small in number, but they still make a significant contribution to economies of local communities, not just through their catches but also in jobs in processing and other support and service sectors.
Scottish fishermen are fully committed to protecting fragile and vulnerable marine habitats, as is illustrated by our full and constructive participation in the designation of a wide array of Marine Protected Areas around our coast. Indeed, following the latest designation, somewhere in the region of 20% of the seas around Scotland are now afforded some kind of protection. That is a massive area, and much more than any comparable protection on land.
For deepwater areas, the Scottish industry has contributed massively to this process including closing off areas to protect coral at Rockall and the Darwin Mounds, and using large mesh nets that virtually eliminate discards. Such deepwater areas are also only generally fished by our boats for a few months of the year, leaving the stocks free from any kind of fishing activity for the rest of the time. Our fishermen are also very open to further discussions on other measures that may enhance even more protection of such areas, whilst at the same time striking a balance in maintaining a viable fishing fleet.
Yes, these stocks are biologically different and generally reproduce slower than those in shallower waters, but are these really sound reasons to stop this fishing altogether and deny ourselves a sustainable food resource? With sensible management and careful controls, including the avoidance of vulnerable seabed features, then these fisheries too have an important role to play in ensuring our food security. If you take away one source of protein to feed the world, then it is simply going to have to come from somewhere else – and probably from a land-based, less sustainable and more carbon intensive source.
The Guardian article also carries the underlying theme that all trawling is bad, despite the fact that it is the most widely used means of sustainably catching fish and that according to the science the majority of fish stocks in the north-east Atlantic are either in good health or are increasing.
Rather than knee-jerk calls for bans, a much better approach is to manage deep-water fisheries through dialogue and sensible decision-making to achieve the twin aims of marine protection and securing a sustainable food resource. The Scottish fishing industry is happy to take such a course, it is a real pity that others are not.