A study published in 2009 suggested that in all but the deepest of their waters—those with a seabed closer than 1,500 metres to the surface—yields had dropped by 70% over 25 years. Even in the abyss below that depth, the fall was 20%. To try to stem this decline the European Union, which regulates fishing in much of the area, is proposing to limit the depth at which trawling can take place. This would, in effect, create a marine reservoir below that level, a form of protection additional to the system of species-specific quotas that already exists. The question is where the line below which trawl-gear is forbidden should be drawn. And, until now, there have been few scientific data to inform that decision.
This has just changed, however, with the timely publication, in Current Biology, of a study by Jo Clarke of Glasgow University and Francis Neat of Marine Scotland Science, a government agency. Their work suggests that the appropriate cut-off would be at a depth of 600 metres—below which the ecological damage caused by trawling increases substantially.
Ms Clarke and Dr Neat derive their conclusion from data collected between 1978 and 2013 by Marine Scotland Science and the Universities of Aberdeen and St Andrews. These data record species caught, and also the depths of the trawls that caught them, which ranged from 250 to 1,500 metres.
The researchers note that biodiversity increases with depth. On average, an extra 18 fish species show up with each 100-metre increase. Many of these, though, are of little commercial value. Such so-called by-catch gets thrown back, but by then most of it is dead. And that, particularly because deep-sea species tend to grow more slowly than those which live near the surface, and have lower fecundity rates, can have profound effects on ocean ecology. Trawls at 300 metres, Ms Clarke and Dr Neat found, have a ratio of catch to by-catch (in terms of weight) of five to one. At 600 metres the ratio is around three to one. At 800 metres, though, it is ten to nine; at 1,000 metres one to one; and at 1,200 metres, one to two.
Based on these findings, Ms Clarke and Dr Neat suggest that a trawl limit of 600 metres would be a suitable compromise between commercial reality and ecological necessity.
Excerpts from Fisheries: Drawing the line, Economist, Sept. 5, 2015, at 80