Aotearoa accused of failing to adequately protect seamounts in international waters amid high-level United Nations fisheries meeting

Amid a high-level UN fisheries meeting in New York, there are accusations that New Zealand is failing to adequately protect seamounts in international waters from bottom trawlers.

Seamounts are underwater biodiversity hotspots and the meeting in New York will help frame changes to high seas bottom trawling in the future. 

A vast array of incredibly unusual corals, sponges and creatures congregate on seamounts, often referred to as underwater mountains. Seamounts emerge from the muddy seafloor and are a magnet for biodiversity. 

And almost always, new species are found when exploring them.  

"We could find up to 10 percent of our biodiversity is comprised of either new species which haven't been seen before or they're new records for that location," said NIWA principal fisheries scientist Dr Malcolm Clark.

Dr Clark surveyed over 150 seamounts. He's been doing it since the late 80s and said damage to seamounts from bottom trawling is obvious and long-lasting.

"Work done on features inside New Zealand indicate that some of the deep sea corals will take decades, potentially even centuries, to recover to what they were before being affected by fishing."

The Louisville Seamount Chain, off the east coast of New Zealand, is another area he explored. The chain is made up of 60 features, spanning hundreds of kilometres, in the South Pacific Ocean. A New Zealand vessel got permission to trawl there last year and no other country's fished there since 2019.

Greenpeace marine ecologist Kat Goddard, who's in New York for the United Nations fisheries workshop, said that's not good enough.  

"If protecting deep-sea biodiversity was a priority for the New Zealand Government then it would stop issuing bottom trawl permits to those vessels fishing in the South Pacific."

The UN previously called on states to "take immediate action to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems, including seamounts, hydrothermal vents and corals, from fishing practices with significant adverse impacts".

The Government said trawling is managed through "spatial closures", meaning some areas are blocked off from trawling.  

It said it's an "active and leading" member of developing such rules, and that trawling in the South Pacific is regulated internationally. 

"New Zealand's model that they're taking to the UN on bottom trawling is an idea that you can continue to destroy vulnerable biodiversity hotspots if other ones exist elsewhere in the same region. It's not a particularly progressive approach," said Greenpeace oceans campaigner Ellie Hooper.

Environmentalists, who painted a mural in New York to highlight the issue, said it shouldn't happen at all. 

"We're calling on the New Zealand Government to ban bottom trawling on all seamounts and features to defend deep-sea life," said Deep Sea Conservation Coalition campaign coordinator Karli Thomas. 

Even on seamounts closed to fishing, the skipper of Talley's vessel Amaltal Apollo was found guilty of illegal bottom trawling in 2018.

That was in the Tasman Sea on the Lord Howe Rise. And the Ministry of Primary Industries is currently prosecuting another case of alleged illegal fishing in the same area. 

But the boss of Sealord, Doug Paulin, said when it comes to seamounts, there must be balance.

"We do have to feed the world, and the protein that comes from those areas is still an important source of protein."

Paulin's not opposed to more seamount fishing bans - but not all.  

"That would be like saying to every farmer historically who took down our native forest and saying they should replant all those forests and we should stop ploughing the land."

NIWA’s Dr Clark says the balance between open and closed seamounts is “tricky”, saying in part it’s a decision society must consider. 

He says science can determine which biodiversity is underrepresented in closed areas and in that situation “there’s an argument for closing more of those types of seamounts.” 

Exploitation versus protection - a review of bottom trawling will take place at the UN in November.