Last week's CCAMLR meeting produced an important result: the delegates voted to protect two 400 square kilometer areas of seabed by designating them vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) in which certain damaging fishing methods are prohibited. Australia led the designation effort, and Australian delegation leader Dr. Tony Press likened the areas, home to vibrant cold-water coral communities, to the Great Barrier Reef. The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), which Dr. Press directs, explored these regions earlier this year as part of the Collaborative East Antarctic Marine Census, itself part of the Census of Marine Life. The AAD-led expedition discovered new species and uncovered an amazing range of seabed life. Video of these unique communities can be viewed at the AAD website. Significantly, the protection agreement is structured so that other areas with similar ecological qualities can also be made off limits to fishing when identified.
Bottom fishing presents an enormous threat to these and other seabed communities. Fishing vessels drag huge nets across the ocean floor, which releases clouds of sediment large enough to be seen from space. Large metal plates and rubber wheels attached to these nets move along the bottom and crush nearly everything in their path. Seafloor animals simply cannot survive this kind of onslaught, particularly if areas are trawled repeatedly. The Marine Conservation Biology Institute estimates that bottom trawling kills twenty pounds of "bycatch "for every pound it harvests. Bycatch refers to animals killed or caught incidentally in the process of catching desired species. Because of the damage to marine life and the seafloor, ASOC recommends a comprehensive moratorium on high-seas bottom trawling. The CCAMLR measure is an important and promising step in the right direction, but only protects a fraction of the areas at risk from this unacceptably destructive fishing method.