The biological characteristics of deep-sea species and the specific features of deep marine ecosystems make them particularly sensitive to human activities. In July 2012, the Commission tabled a proposal to review rules for deep-sea fishing in the North-East Atlantic. The Council has not yet taken a position, but the European Parliament is set to vote its first reading.
Technological progress in the 1980s and 1990s contributed to new forms of fishing at previously unexplored depths, from several hundred to several thousand metres below the ocean’s surface. But deep-sea ecosystems still remain largely unknown today. Some deep-sea fish species can live for a very long time (over a century in the case of the orange roughy), and some deep-sea corals can be thousands of years old. Very slow growing and late reproducing fish make such a stock highly sensitive to overfishing. Vulnerable marine habitats (of corals or sponges, for example) are also particularly sensitive to some fishing methods. In view of the threats facing deep-sea stocks, and recognising the fragility of deep-sea ecosystems, initiatives have progressively been developed, both globally (e.g. United Nations General Assembly, UN Food and Agriculture Organisation) and at regional level (e.g. North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) to promote more responsible exploitation of deep-seas.
EU deep-sea fisheries in the North-East Atlantic are mainly managed based on a list of identified species. The Deep-sea Stocks Regulation (2347/2002) sets access restrictions (e.g. permits), limits on capacity, effort monitoring, specific controls (e.g. designated landing ports) and data collection (by an onboard scientific observer). There are also catch limits, which are regularly reviewed and include some landing prohibitions (e.g. for deep-sea sharks). Specific fisheries area closures (e.g. under the Technical Measures Regulation) also apply to protect vulnerable habitats, in international NEAFC waters or in EU Natura 2000 sites designated for deep-water corals under the Habitats Directive.
The Commission has proposed a new set of measures to replace the Deep-sea Stocks Regulation. It aims at exploitation of deep-sea species consistent with a precautionary approach, with some simplification (i.e. avoiding where possible two parallel systems of capacity/effort restrictions and catch limits). Since it considers bottom trawls and bottom-set gillnets as the most harmful fishing gear to vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems, the Commission proposes a complete phase-out of their use in deep seas within two years. The Commission considers the economic impact of its proposal as limited, though accepts the issue may be more sensitive at a local level in some regions (notably in France, Portugal and Spain). It also points out that EU funding may be available to help convert fisheries to gear with less impact on sea habitats.
A number of NGOs, grouped under the Deep-Sea Conservation Coalition, call for strong action and advocate in particular a complete phase-out of bottom trawling. Fishing sector representatives, however, have expressed strong concerns, as illustrated for example in a joint position of the European Social Partners. They see a full ban on the use of deep-sea trawls and gillnets as “a disproportionate and poorly conceived approach”.
After two hearings on deep-sea stocks in February 2013 and June 2013, the EP Fisheries Committee (rapporteur Kriton Arsenis, S&D, Greece) voted on the proposal on 4 November 2013. It did not support a complete ban of deep-sea bottom trawling in the North-East Atlantic, but favoured restrictions on deep-sea fisheries in areas with vulnerable ecosystems. The European Parliament is now poised to vote on the proposed Regulation (first reading).