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Marine scientist advises UN on deep sea fishing practices

by Cindy Weiss - February 25, 2008

A marine sciences faculty member in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is participating in a United Nations process to draft deep sea fishing management guidelines that will protect ecosystems and vulnerable species in the high seas.

Peter Auster, associate research professor of marine sciences and science director of the National Undersea Research Center at UConn, was a member of the U.S. delegation to talks earlier this month at the headquarters of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome.

The FAO is charged with developing guidelines to carry out UN General Assembly resolutions on high seas fisheries management.

Deep sea fishing uses trawlers with freezers, long lines, traps, and nets that go thousands of meters down.

It can endanger vulnerable species such as cold water corals and sponges, underwater sea mounts that are home to sensitive species, and vent habitats.

Deep sea fishing takes place in waters beyond a country’s 200-mile limit, sometimes at depths of 2000 meters. Spain, Russia, and Portugal are among the countries with the biggest deep sea catches. The U.S. has a minor role.

Some 53 countries and the European Community had representatives at the Rome talks, working through translators in six different languages to iron out details of how deep sea fisheries management will work.

Auster’s role as one of a half dozen members of the U.S. delegation was to advise on scientific issues. His research specialty is the ecology of marine fishes.

He has conducted multiple studies on the effects of fishing on fish habitats and the role of marine reserves as a conservation tool in outer continental shelf regions.

Last year, he served as an expert consultant at a guidelines drafting session in Bangkok.

The main issues at the first formal talks in Rome were defining terms such as “vulnerable marine ecosystems,” “significant adverse impact,” and “sustainable fishing,” and setting the scope of the guidelines.

The heads of delegations spoke during plenary sessions, and smaller groups negotiated technical details in side sessions.

“It was a very interesting experience to see how this works, and attempt to bridge the science-policy gap,” says Auster.

“There was clearly a tension between those people who were on the fisheries side of the issue and those on the conservation side,” he says. “The bottom line is which side to err on in decision making.”

Species that might be affected by deep sea fishing practices are still being identified in the deep ocean, Auster says. “We really don’t know all that is there.

“The question becomes,” he adds, “do you forego fishing opportunities to ensure that all vulnerable communities are conserved, even when you are uncertain if they are present, or do you keep economic opportunities open unless you are certain that vulnerable communities are at risk?”

Participants in the U.S. delegation included people with ties to the scientific community, policy makers, lawyers, and a representative from the fishing industry.

The delegation was led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Balton, who is U.S. Ambassador for Oceans and Fisheries.

The goal of the talks is to better protect fragile species and habitats from irresponsible fishing practices, according to the FAO.

Extensive deep sea fishing is a relatively new practice. From 1950 to 1977, it made up less than one percent of all marine catches on average, the FAO reports.

By 2005, it had increased to four percent. The catch of some fish, such as orange roughy, has declined due to exploitation.

A final round of talks will be held in August in Rome.

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