On December 8th, Belize signed legislation into place that bans bottom trawling in the nation’s entire Exclusive Economic Zone (out to 200 nautical miles). Oceana (press release), an international organization focused on ocean conservation, assisted the government by negotiating the buyout of existing trawlers; this action also received the full support of the Belize Fishermen Association.
Bottom-trawling has long been compared to its terrestrial analog of forest clear-cutting1. Imagine your local forest bulldozed in order to collect a single target species; not only is the suite of animals and their diversity enormously changed, but their habitat is largely destroyed. However, this happens on an enormous scale in the global ocean, and in the vast majority of cases, is totally legal due to the lack of an international moratorium on trawling and far too few marine protected areas. Fishing gear dragged along the benthos can crush and bury marine animals, utterly decimating structure-forming organisms, such as sponges or corals, which provide habitat. The size, diversity, and turnover time of dominant species are reduced, leading to highly-altered community structure, which can persist for decades. Trawling is not a series of isolated incidents but affects immense areas. For example, off New England and in the Gulf of Mexico in the U.S., the total area fished by trawling is 138,000 km2 and 270,000 km2, respectively, with many areas being swept more than once per year2.
Trawling is a devastating, non-selective fishing method that adds to the global issue of overfishing and obliterates biologically-produced habitat. Trawling impacts are visible from space. In a recent study assessing the impact of human activities on the deep ocean in the North East Atlantic, researchers found that the spatial extent of bottom trawling is, conservatively, at least an order of magnitude larger than all other quantified activities combined, including dumping, communication cables, the hydrocarbon industry, and research activities 3.
This action by Belize should set an example to all coastal nations, and hopefully represents a small step towards comprehensive legislation in both national and international waters. Belize’s ban goes into effect December 31, 2010.
1. Watling L, Norse EA (1998) Distrubance of the seabed by mobile fishing gear: a comparison to forest clearcutting. Conservation Biology 12: 1180-1197
2. For review see: Jackson JBC (2008) Ecological extinction and evolution in the brave new ocean. PNAS 105: 11458-11465
3. Benn AR, Weaver PP, Billet DSM, van den Hove S, Murdock AP, et al. (2010) Human Activities on the Deep Seafloor in the North East Atlantic: An Assessment of Spatial Extent. PLoS ONE 5(9): e12730. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012730