News + Opinion » Environment

What a drag

Tim Bousquet scratches the surface of bottom trawling.



“Huh?” That was the collective reaction among fishermen, environmentalists and marine biologists last month when John Risley, chair of Bedford-based Clearwater Seafoods, dissed the international movement for a moratorium on deep-sea bottom trawling.

“There is zero scientific evidence, not one shred of scientific evidence,” Risley told the St. John’s Board of Trade, “that these fisheries do any damage to the bottom environment whatsoever.”

“That’s just crazy,” says Susanna Fuller, a grad student at Dalhousie writing a thesis on the effect of bottom trawling on sponge communities in the northwest Atlantic. “I’ve got over a thousand papers documenting the effects of bottom trawling, and hundreds more reviewing those papers. Clearwater has even funded studies on the issue.

“It’s like saying there’s no evidence for global warming. It’s ridiculous.”

Put “bottom trawling” into Google Scholar and you’ll pull up 1,780 papers, with titles like “The impact of bottom trawling on benthic fauna of the North Sea” and “The impacts of bottom trawling in the Mediterranean.”

But you don’t need a bunch of letters behind your name to understand that dragging weighted nets over coral reefs damages those reefs, or that four-metre wide clam dredges that liquefy the seabed down to 18 inches destroys fish habitat.

That’s why Canada, like many other nations, already protects sea mounts—underwater mountains where corals and the rich fish communities that feed on them are found—within its territorial waters. What’s at issue now is the unregulated high seas. These areas haven’t been mapped and no one knows what particular regions need to be protected.

“There was recently a study of sea mounts in remote areas of the Pacific a few hundred miles off Australia,” explains Fuller. “We expected to find these pristine reefs, but most of them had already been destroyed. The fishing industry will always get to those areas before science.”

Environmental organizations have therefore asked the United Nations General Assembly to implement a moratorium on bottom trawling on the high seas until sensitive areas can be identified and protected. Most nations, including the United States and Australia, support such a ban.

Risley’s a smart fellow. He started Clearwater in 1976, hawking lobster out of the back his pickup truck along the Bedford Highway, and has grown the company into a giant, with $350 million in annual sales. It’s also worth noting that Clearwater itself would not be directly affected by a high-seas bottom trawling moratorium, as all the company’s operations are conducted within Canadian waters.

So what gives? How is it that Risley can cavalierly dismiss common sense, science and broad international agreement?

“It’s a defensive position,” explains Fuller. “He’s afraid that this moratorium will lead to a ban on trawling in Canadian waters. But no environmental group will call for a ban in Canadian waters, because it’s not necessary—we already have the regulatory tools needed to protect the most sensitive areas.”

Whatever the reason for Risley’s comments, they’ve had their intended effect: Canadian fisheries minister Loyola Hearn opposed the moratorium, and Canada joined Iceland and Japan, countries with large fleets dragging the high seas, in opposing the UN resolution. Last week, the UN General Assembly passed a watered-down resolution calling for member countries to police their own fleets, effectively scuttling the high-seas moratorium.

The incident perfectly demonstrates how the federal government puts even unfound corporate fears above the health of the oceans. It’s a sad decision for Canada, and for the environment.

Organic holidays: December 10 is the last day to order chemical-free Christmas trees and wreaths from the Ecology Action Centre. Call 442-0198 for details.

Putting the net back in internet. Email:

Add a comment

Remember, it's entirely possible to disagree without spiralling into a thread of negativity and personal attacks. We have the right to remove (and you have the right to report) any comments that go against our policy.