North Sea Marine Life Trashed, WWF Warns Ministers

BERGEN, Norway, March 20, 2002 (ENS) - European environment ministers were confronted by a giant set of scales outside their meeting here today symbolizing the tons of marine creatures that are accidentally caught only to be thrown back dead or dying into the North Sea.


WWF volunteers weigh in on overfishing and high bycatch rates in the North Sea. (Photo © WWF/Helge Hansen)
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) staged the demonstration to draw attention to the waste of what the conservation group says is half a million metric tons of marine animals every year. On one side of the 3.5 meter (11 foot) high balance scale were fish caught for human use. On the other side were three examples of other animals accidentally caught in fishing nets: harbor porpoises, baby cod, and starfish.

Many animals caught in fishing nets are thrown back into the sea because they are too young, or the wrong species, or over-quota. More than 7,000 harbor porpoises a year are killed this way, says the WWF, as are sharks, rays, seabirds, and many commercial fish species.

The environment ministers of Germany, the UK, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, and Norway, the Netherlands minister of water management as well as plus representatives of the governments of France and Switzerland and of the European Commission are attending the two day International North Sea Ministerial Conference.

Opening the conference, Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik outlined the group's main concerns, "the environmental impacts of fisheries, the discharges of hazardous substances and nutrients, the effects of climate change on the marine environment and questions related to the protection and conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity."


Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik (Photo courtesy Office of the Prime Minister)
"This is the first time that the promotion of renewable energy solutions is to be addressed in the framework of the North Sea Conferences," Bondevik told his fellows, welcoming the initiative "as a means to tackle the challenge of climate change, and the effects that this can have on the oceans."

Bondevik raised as issues of concern the radioactive discharges from the British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. facility at Sellafield, and the possible transport of radioactive materials between European countries and Japan through the North Sea and the Northern Sea Route.

"Introductions of alien species via ships ballast water and possible introductions of genetically modified organisms are other important problems that need to be tackled," the prime minister said. "The irreversible effects of the spreading of alien species into the marine environment are frightening."

But Bondevik did not address the issue of the waste of marine life that is caught but discarded. Christian von Dorrien of WWF's European Fisheries Campaign said, "The European Union's fisheries policy does nothing to stop this waste WWF is calling on the environment ministers to provide the necessary protection for these marine animals, and to ensure that real environmental protection measures are built into the Common Fisheries Policy which is up for review this year."

WWF wants the environment ministers to establish a network of well managed marine protected areas throughout the North Sea.


The North Sea off the Norwegian coast near Ålesund (Photo courtesy Nate Hultman)
The ministers should require improvements to fishing gear and restrictions on fishing areas, and above all take an ecosystem approach to protection of the North Sea, the group says.

In his speech, Bondevik was warm towards the ecosystem approach, calling it "a very promising new concept, which I believe will be a success factor for the future."

"Time is running out for marine wildlife unless governments commit themselves to make space for nature now," said Stephan Lutter, head of WWF's delegation at the conference. "Despite ground breaking ministerial commitments in the '80s and '90s, the North Sea continues to be over used by human activities, including offshore oil and gas platforms, cables and pipelines, military activities, shipping lanes, windfarms and, last not least, fish trawlers ploughing the sea bed."

Norway is dependent on North Sea oil production as well as the North Sea fisheries. Bondevik addressed a challenge to the offshore petroleum industry to develop new technologies for the reduction of the volume of produced water discharged into the sea which is harmful to marine life.