Credit: NZ Herald
Seamounts are undersea mountains that rise at least 1000m off the seafloor. Collectively, they form the largest wildlife habitat on Earth, covering more of the Earth's surface than rainforests, deserts or tundra.
Fish congregate on the slopes of seamounts, as do corals and crustaceans. These are regions of high productivity due to ocean currents flowing up the seamount and bringing nutrients upwards from the depths of the ocean towards the warm surface.
People have trawled for fish in these areas for a very long time, using nets that run over the seafloor.
This method, while necessary to catch fish, makes it tough for coral and others to live where the nets run.
Two weeks ago, Sealord proposed that 89 per cent of known seamounts in New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) should be placed into conservation.
The plan would protect 127 of New Zealand's 142 known seamounts from all bottom trawling.
The proposal is an unprecedented commitment to protecting life on the seabed, in tandem with the ongoing protection of providing fish within the fixed Government quota limits.
Some may wonder why we should want such a thing.
Primarily it's because Sealord values sustainability. We want to do it for the same reason New Zealand has fishing quotas: to preserve abundant marine life on the seafloor so the population remains healthy.
This plan is what we all understand as living sustainably; to conserve the marine environment and continue fishing at a level that allows marine life to keep regenerating.
Sealord has worked out that it only needs to fish 11 per cent of seamounts to catch enough to contribute to the 700 million fish meals that deep-sea trawling produces annually. These meals feed New Zealanders, employ locals and earn export dollars the country uses to buy things from overseas, such as electric vehicles.
Currently, about 50 per cent of seamounts (71 of 142) are protected from bottom trawling through Benthic Protection Areas (BPAs) and Seamount Closure Areas (SCAs). Of the remaining 71 seamounts, 56 have never been trawled.
That leaves 15, or 11 per cent, that are trawled, and where the seabed is already disturbed.
This proposal is sustainable and achievable because it locks in the present practice and locks away the rest in a conservation envelope.
Some activists are campaigning for a ban on the fishing of all seamounts. This has been timed to coincide with a Government-led process that is working out what level of seamount fishing is sustainable.
The campaigners responded to our proposal, saying New Zealand needs to shut down all seamount fishing because there is an "extinction crisis". No studies show an "extinction crisis" on the seafloor. It seems very unlikely that fishing only 11 per cent of seamounts would cause the extinction of any species.
The campaign has shrewdly enlarged the things it wants banned. It now claims there are 800 seamounts, not the 142 mapped by Niwa of mountains over 1000 metres high. The features being talked about are undersea hills and knolls. These can be protected, and many are.
Sealord is open to discussing more protection once we conclude the seamount discussion.
The campaigners do not explain what will be achieved by banning fishing. That's because there would only be a small percentage increase in the volume of coral, crabs and other seafloor dwellers.
That's a good thing, but there would be no significant improvement in the quality of the ecosystem.
The unique species down there, and some of them might be native to this region, survive and thrive under our plan almost as much as they would under total conservation.
The opposition to our proposal reveals the contrast between New Zealanders' ideas of sustainability and activists' ideas of conservation.
Harvesting food, from the wild or farms, always damages something. The aim of sustainability is that the damage we cause in order to live does not overwhelm other species and ecosystems.
New Zealand trawls just 2-3 per cent of its EEZ seabed each year, returning to the same fishing grounds. Only 8 per cent of the entire EEZ has ever been trawled.
It is remarkable that most of our domestic fish supply is caught by trawling in such a small area, compared to the proportion of land New Zealand uses for food production.
The campaign against seamount fishing is designed to make you feel bad. It is not bothered by the consequences of stopping access to a valuable food source. This approach, extended across all land and seafood production, is a recipe for human starvation.
You should not be made to feel bad for eating fish or anything else taken from the land or water, if it is done sustainably.
We all know sustainability is the answer. It is the approach we take to the marine environment with the quota system, now 30 years old and internationally acclaimed for keeping fish stocks healthy.
It is also the approach we should take for life on the seabed.
• Doug Paulin is CEO of the country's largest deepsea seafood company Sealord
To view the NZ Herald article, click here: