Considerations on COM(2007)605 - Protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems in the high seas from the adverse impacts of bottom fishing gears

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(1) The Community is a Contracting Party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and to the Agreement on the implementation of the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks. These international instruments lay down the duty of States to cooperate on conserving the living resources of the high seas, and prescribe that such cooperation shall be pursued directly by States or through appropriate subregional or regional fisheries management organisations or arrangements.

(2) The absence of a regional fisheries management organisation or arrangement does not exempt States from their obligation under the law of the Sea to adopt with respect to their nationals such measures as may be necessary for the conservation of the living resources of the high seas, including the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems against the harmful effects of fishing activities.

(3) Article 2 of Council Regulation (EC) No 2371/2002 of 20 December 2002 on the conservation and sustainable exploitation of fisheries resources under the common fisheries policy[3] provides that the common fisheries policy is to apply the precautionary approach in taking measures to minimise the impact of fishing activities on marine ecosystems. Article 7 of the same Regulation provides that the Commission may decide on emergency measures at the substantiated request of a Member State or on its own initiative if there is evidence of a serious threat to the conservation of living aquatic resources, or to the marine eco-system resulting from fishing activities and requiring immediate action;

(4) The Community is committed to the conservation of marine ecosystems such as reefs, seamounts, deep water corals, hydrothermal vents and sponge beds. There is abundant scientific information showing that the integrity of these ecosystems is threatened by fishing activities using bottom gears. The Community has already adopted measures to close to bottom fishing areas within Community waters where such ecosystems are found. It has also been instrumental in the adoption of similar measures in the high seas within the areas of competence of all existing regional fisheries management organisations empowered to regulate bottom fisheries. It has also actively contributed to the establishment of new organisations or arrangements with a view to achieving global coverage of the world's ocean by appropriate regional fisheries conservation and management regimes. There are, however, certain areas of the high seas for which the establishment of such a body encounters significant difficulties.

(5) By Resolution 61/105 of the General Assembly of the United Nations, adopted on 8 December 2006[4], the international community has agreed on the pressing need to adopt measures to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems from the destructive effects of bottom fishing activities through strict regulation of those activities by regional fisheries management organisations or arrangements or by States in respect of their flagged vessels operating in areas where no such organisations or arrangements are in place. The General Assembly has provided guidance as to the kind of measures that should be adopted to this end.

(6) The Community has a sizeable fleet conducting bottom fishing in areas not regulated by a regional fisheries management organisation or arrangement and for which the establishment of such organisation or arrangement cannot be expected in the short term. Without prejudice to continued efforts to remedy these remaining spatial gaps in the international fisheries governance system, the Community must discharge its obligations under the law of the sea with regard to the conservation of the marine living resources in these areas and must therefore adopt appropriate measures in respect of these fleets. In doing so, the Community must act in accordance with the guidance provided by the General Assembly in Resolution 61/105.

(7) A key component of the recommendations made by the General Assembly is measures "… to assess, on the basis of the best available scientific information, whether individual bottom fishing activities would have significant adverse impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems, and to ensure that if it is assessed that these activities would have significant adverse impacts, they are managed to prevent such impacts, or not authorised to proceed"[5].

(8) The implementation of that recommendation requires that the fishing vessels concerned are authorised to fish under a special fishing permit issued in accordance with Council Regulation (EC) No 1627/94 of 27 June 1994 laying down general provisions concerning special fishing permits[6] and Commission Regulation (EC) No 2943/95 of 20 December 1995 setting out detailed rules for applying Council Regulation (EC) No 1627/94[7]. In addition, the issuance and validity of such permits must be subject to specific conditions ensuring that the impact of the authorised fishing activities has been properly assessed and that the conduct of fishing operations complies with such assessment.

(9) The implementation of the Recommendations made by the General Assembly also requires relevant monitoring measures to ensure compliance with the conditions under which the permits are issued. These include on-board observers and specific provisions regarding the operation of satellite-based Vessel Monitoring Systems to address events of technical failure or non-functioning of the system, beyond those set forth by Commission Regulation (EC) No 2244/2003 of 18 December 2003 laying down detailed provisions regarding satellite-based Vessel Monitoring Systems[8].

(10) The identification of vulnerable marine ecosystems in areas not regulated by a regional fisheries management organisation is a work in progress and there is relatively limited scientific information in this respect. A depth limit for the deployment of bottom gears provides a precautionary protected boundary for deep water corals and sponges within the water column. A depth of 1 000 m represents a reasonable choice providing a suitable degree of protection while compatible with the continuation of bottom fisheries for demersal species generally found at shallower depths such as hake and squid. This depth restriction is also compatible with the progressive development, under this regulation, of area-based measures to fully protect sites where vulnerable ecosystems are known or likely to occur.

(11) The violation of specific conditions such as those relating to the depth restriction, the operation of the Vessel Monitoring System and the relocation of activities in case of unforeseen encounter with a vulnerable marine ecosystem may result in irreparable damage to such ecosystems and deserves therefore to be included among the list of serious infringements contained in Council Regulation (EC) No 1447/1999 of 24 June 1999 establishing a list of types of behaviour which seriously infringe the rules of the common fisheries policy[9].

(12) The Community has established a specific management regime that applies to fishing for deep sea stocks through Council Regulation (EC) No 2347/2002 establishing specific access requirements and associated conditions applicable to fishing for deep sea stocks[10]. It is appropriate to ensure that the requirements set forth in Regulation (EC) No 2347/2002 also apply to Community fishing vessels targeting deep sea stocks in areas where there is no international management measures or arrangements in force.