Tracing the Enviro-Legal Framework for Bottom Trawling
Ms. Lianne D’Souza, Research Fellow, CEERA
Ms. Alekhya Sattigeri, Law Student, ULC, GGSIPU
Marine ecosystems, like other natural resources, have and continue to be threatened by environmentally degrading anthropogenic activities. From the active pollution of oceans and to the flagrant exploitation of marine resources, human-induced habitat destruction has been the greatest stressor for the marine environment. One such exploitative activity that has been a significant contributor in the impoverishment of marine eco-systems is the practice of bottom trawling.
Deep Sea Trawling or bottom trawling, as it is popularly referred, is an industrial fishing practice that involves dragging heavy weighted nets across the sea floor, in an effort to catch large quantities of marine animals. It is a type of demersal fishing practice to drive fish and crustaceans from the sea bed into nets. This method of fishing dates back to the 14th century, but it gained widespread practice and popularity in 19th century, at the dawn of the industrial revolution. As the shallow beds adjacent to the shore were not profitable enough to meet the rising human demand of fish and other aquatic animals, traditional fishing gradually began to expand offshore leading to trawling in the deep sea. Naturally, as the deep sea is home to a variety of endemic and benthic biodiversity, bottom trawling ushered in commercial benefits compared to fishing in shallow water off the coast. This being said, incessant deep-sea fishing came at a cost of the environment. While bottom trawling proved to be economically profitable, catering to the rising human demand of marine resources, it carries with itself issue of large-scale degradation of the marine ecosystem.
Environmental Effects of Bottom Trawling
Bottom trawling is associated with a wide array of harmful environmental consequences ranging from severe environmental degradation to sea floor, marine animals and corals to undesirable effects on the bio-geo chemical cycle and increased carbon footprint.
First and foremost, the severe impact of bottom trawling is evident in the destruction and loss of marine habitat. Deep sea coral forests, also known as the hidden victims of trawling, and thought to be some of the most biodiverse ecosystems with high degree of endemism, generally take centuries to form. As the trawl net drags along the seafloor, corals, seagrasses, sponges and other seafloor habitat structures, get crushed and destroyed.  This has serious implications on the survival of marine species as they are dependent on such structures for shelter, spawning, nurseries for juvenile fish, protection, food. According to the US National Academy of Sciences, as much as 90% of a coral colony perishes, and up to two-thirds of sponges are damaged as a result of bottom trawling. Moreover, a study on cold-water corals in the Gulf of Alaska showed that bottom trawling can cause irreversible damage as a review of damaged areas after seven years revealed no new growth.
Secondly, bottom trawling has been regarded as an extremely unsustainable and destructive method of fishing as it a major cause of over-exploitation of sea resources, bycatch nuisance, and biodiversity crisis. The mechanized boats making use of trawler nets, scoop up all creatures that comes in its path, and therefore, end up catching huge quantities and variety of marine animal and plant species. As trawling gears are indiscriminate, it leads to over-fishing. While the targeted commercial species are accumulated, the non-target, unwanted catch is discarded, most of which do not survive.  Up to half of all discarded fish and marine life worldwide identifies with bottom trawling. For instance, shrimp trawling in the Caribbean and Central America has high discard rates, with shrimp trawls in Panama discarding more than 80% of their catch. In the Gulf of Mexico, scientists estimate that for every pound of shrimp caught, between four and ten pounds of marine resources are thrown away. In 2007, shrimp trawlers in Belize landed only 19 metric tons of shrimp (FAO) and likely discarded about 76 to 190 metric tons of other marine life.
Bottom trawling is also linked to the problem of degrading biodiversity crisis. It has led to several species being labelled as endangered or threatened species as their population is readily declining due to over-fishing and over-exploitation.  In addition, many species are being fished to the brink simply as a consequence of commercial activities, not as the target of them. They are victims of accidental bycatch. Moreover, as trawling is resorted to frequently with no intervals, the marine ecosystem is not provided enough time to replenish and rewild. Over-fished species whose habitats have been ruined by trawlers suffer tremendously..
Thirdly, ocean sediment is a huge reservoir of carbon. However, bottom trawling has proved to affect the rate at which carbon is being sequestered by our oceans, and therefore, has high carbon footprint emissions. A study titled- “Protecting the global ocean for biodiversity, food and climate” found out that fishing boats that trawl the ocean floor release as much carbon dioxide as the entire aviation industry.
Fourthly, bottom trawling destroys the natural seafloor habitat by essentially rototilling the seabed.  A study in 2012 entitled “Ploughing the deep-sea floor” found that bottom trawling fundamentally altered the chemistry and geology of soft sediment habitats, and the physical environment of sand, mud or rock that results from trawling, thus, permanently impacting the composition of these ecosystems. 
Thus, the damage inflicted by bottom trawling on the marine ecosystem is profound. For this reason, environment protectionists and conservatists have been demanding a ban on this evil practice.
Legal Framework for Bottom Trawling
- International Legal Framework
Past experiences have proved that while States and their nationals tend to stringently comply with domestic laws, there is lack of such due diligence for international law. Thus, owing to the lack of a strictly followed legal, regulatory framework on bottom-trawling, majority of this destructive fishing occurs on the high seas, unregulated. No state can subject any part of the high seas to its sovereignty, and it is subject solely to international law. Thus, to delineate whether international law provides for adequate protection from the negative effects of bottom trawling on the high seas as well as jurisdictional waters, the article focuses on two eco-centric conventions, namely the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD).
- United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
The UNCLOS is a comprehensive framework convention on the law of the sea. It covers all areas of the oceans, including the high seas, continental shelves, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), territorial sea, contiguous zones, and the seabed.
With respect to the High Seas, Part VII of the Convention expressly identifies the rights of member states along with the conditions subject to which, the States shall exercise their rights. For example, by virtue of Article 87, all coastal and land-locked states are entitled to the freedom of the high seas, which includes the freedom of fishing. However, this freedom are conditional and is subject to the provisions stated in Section 2, Part VII, treaty obligations, rights and duties, and interests of other States in their exercise of the freedom. Besides this, Part VII also encompasses provisions regulating various activities, including the conservation and management of living resources. For instance, Article 117 and 118 direct States whose nationals exploit living marine resources to adopt either individual or collective measures by cooperating and entering into negotiations, or establishing regional fisheries management organisations for the purpose of their conservation. Article 119, also lays down similar obligations by requiring States, in determining the allowable fishing catch, to adopt various conservation measures to maintain or restore populations of harvested species at levels which can produce the maximum sustainable yield, and also to ensure that population of those species dependent on such harvested species does not reduce to such levels at which their reproduction may become seriously threatened. Furthermore, States and international organisations have been conferred the power to adopt stricter provisions than those laid down in the UNCLOS for prohibiting, imitating and regulating the exploitation of marine mammals.
With respect to jurisdictional waters, which includes the territorial waters and the EEZ, the UNCLOS also lays down similar provisions for regulation by States inside their jurisdiction. Article 192 pronounces that States have the obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment. While the States do enjoy the right to exploit their natural resources pursuant to their environmental policies, they must do so in accordance with their duty to protect and preserve the marine environment. The UNCLOS declares that withing the EEZ, Coastal States have sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living. Article 61, a synonymous provision to Article 119, permits the Coastal States to regulate the permissible limit of fishing catch, and obligates the States to ensure introduction of proper measures for conservation, management, restoration of population of harvested and dependent species in the EEZ. Furthermore, if a coastal State/international organisation chooses to adopt stricter provisions than those laid down in the UNCLOS for prohibiting, imitating and regulating the exploitation of marine mammals, nothing in the Convention shall prevent them from doing so.
- United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD)
The UNCBD is an international legal instrument for the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources. The preamble of the convention reads that States are responsible for conserving their biological diversity and for using their biological resources in a sustainable manner.
The term “biological diversity” as defined in Article 2 includes the entirety of various marine species and ecosystems. “Biological resources” means genetic resources, organisms or parts thereof, populations, or any other biotic component of ecosystems with actual or potential use or value for humanity.
Article 10 directs the State Parties to integrate provisions for the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources into national decision-making and adopt measures relating to the use of biological resources to avoid or minimize adverse impacts on biological diversity.
A significant characteristic of the UNCDB precautionary approach highlighted in Preamble. One of the declarations in the Preamble asserts that where there is a threat of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat. Therefore, an excuse that there is lack of full scientific clarity on the harmful effects of bottom trawling, is not an acceptable reason for States’ failure to adopt requisite measures.
It is evident that there is no explicit ban on the practice of bottom trawling. However, a constructive interpretation of these wide provisions would conclude that any harmful fishing practice which devastates the marine biodiversity, to the extent of rendering them endangered or threatened species must be put to a stop.
Article 22 of the UNCBD, a harmonising provision, states that while dealing with issues concerning the marine environment, the Parties shall implement the UNCBD consistently with the rights and obligations of States under the UNCLOS.
At this instance, it is important to highlight the UNGA Resolution 61/150 on the theme “Sustainable Fisheries”, which although did not achieve its time-bound goals, did lay down a significant precedent. Part X of the Resolution called upon individual States and RFMO’s to regulate bottom fisheries by the application of international law, promotion of the intergenerational equity principle, and adoption of precautionary and ecosystem approach.
It called upon member States to assess whether individual bottom fishing activities would have significant adverse impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) such as cold-water corals, seamounts and hydrothermal vents tor the long-term sustainability of deep-sea fish stocks and, if so, manage such fishing to prevent such impacts or prohibit bottom fishing. In addition, it also called for identification and closing down of areas to bottom fishing where VMEs are known or likely to occur, based on the best available scientific information, and prohibit such fishing unless conservation and management measures have been introduced to prevent significant adverse impacts on VMEs.
The Resolution also urged States and other concerned regional, international organisations to adopt pro-active measures to reduce or eliminate the menace of by-catch through technical measures relating to mesh size, closed seasons and areas, reserved zones.  These Resolutions read alongside the UNCLOS and UNCBD provisions reflect that it the duty and obligation of the States to adopt positive measures, policies towards regulating and prohibiting destructive fishing practice like bottom trawling which have serious implications on the entire marine ecosystem.
- Domestic Regulatory Measures in other Countries
In pursuance of the obligations vested under international treaty law, many countries have taken measures to address the harmful effects of bottom trawling, through bans, restrictions and prohibitions. In the Palau archipelago and Sri Lanka, the respective governments have taken a bold step, and introduced a national ban on bottom trawling, declaring the practice illegal within the jurisdictional waters. Engaging in bottom trawling invites civil and criminal consequences. For example, in Sri Lanka, the Fisheries and Acquactic Resources Act, 1996 was amended in 2017, making bottom trawling an offence punishable with a fine upto 50,000 LKR. On the other hand, multiple counties like the USA, the UK, New Zealand, Norway, Chile, Brazil, have largely adopted a zone-wise ban on bottom trawling for restoration and safeguard of Marine Protected Areas (MPA).
For instance, the USA, having a strong federalist character, comprises of zone-wise councils such as the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (FMC), Pacific and North Pacific FMC, Western Pacific FMC, which have introduced bans within specific areas under their jurisdiction. In a very recent development, the UK Government proposed a bottom-trawling ban in special conservation areas and MPA’s in a bid to restore and preserve the pristine marine habitats. Similarly, the New Zealand government banned bottom trawling in large areas of seamounts and hydrothermal vents, whereas the Norwegian government has banned deep-sea trawling over the Røst reef, the biggest cold-water reef in the world. In Southern Brazil, the Sustainable Fisheries State Policy Act, 2018, (Rio Grande do Sul State Law) was passed which curbed bottom trawling up to 12 miles from the sea-coast. Owing to its generous coast line, the livelihood of the Chilean people is largely dependent on the fishing industry. Recognising the increasing figures of marine diversity hotspots, the Government banned the destructive practice.
Australia, a champion for the UN Resolution 61/105 on the regulation of destructive fishing practices, and bottom-trawling ban, has been pro-active in introducing measures such as bycatch reduction devices within trawls, restrictions for mesh size, and resorting to zone-wise periodical bans to reduce the harmful implications of bottom-trawling.
- Indian Legal Framework
India being a party to the UNCLOS, the UNCBD, and other conventions, agreements, and resolutions, is obligated to prevent harmful fishing practices within its jurisdiction as well as in the high seas. To this effect, the legislature may formulate relevant laws for the regulation of bottom trawling in India. According to Article 246 and Schedule VII of the Constitution of India, Fisheries is a state subject. Therefore, it is incumbent on the State Legislatures to devise rules for bottom trawling. However, fisheries and fishing beyond the territorial waters of India as a subject, falls under the Central List, meaning that the power to introduced any law, guidelines or regulations is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Parliament and the Central Government.
- Laws at the Central Level
At present, there is no specific law enacted by the Parliament that specifically addresses the issue of bottom trawling within the area of its legislative competence. However, the web of inter-related environmental laws indirectly caters to this issue through their inherent structure and design.
The Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying & Fisheries under the Ministry of Agriculture, is the nodal Department for developing fisheries and regulating fishing activities in the EEZ area, between 12 and 200 nautical miles. In November 2014, the Department issued the Guidelines for Fishing Operations in Indian Exclusive Economic Zone, 2014, declaring that the same are binding on all deep-sea fishing vehicles. Guideline 5, outrightly prohibits bottom trawling, as well as exploitation of endangered species declared by the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 by any operator. In addition, Rule 3 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Aquarium and Fish Tank Animals Shop) Rules, 2017, provides that no aquarium or fish shop shall source fish tank animals caught by destructive fishing activities, including bottom trawling. Besides these specific legislations aimed at curbing bottom trawling, there are general obligations under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 and Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
- Laws at the State Level
As fishing activities within the territorial waters is a State subject-matter, such activities, including deep-sea trawling, are regulated by the respective State Marine Fishing Regulatory Acts (MFRA). Kerala was the first Indian State to introduce a temporary, monsoon-season bottom trawling ban in 1988, to give marine species a respite from fishing during their spawning season, thereby facilitating the replenishment of stocks. This move was brought about on the recommendations of the Balakrishnan Nair Committee appointed by the state government to look into the impacts of trawling.  Further, the Kerala Marine Fishing Regulation Rules, 2018, prohibits fishing using pelagic trawl gear in certain specified areas.
When permitted, fishing vessels must comply with the mesh regulation, which directs the fitting of mesh in the cod-end of trawls to reduce by-catch of juveniles and non-target species, as a measure to tackle the rampant over-fishing.
There is also a licencing restriction. Accordingly, a registered fishing vessel can possess only up to 2 licenses. For e.g., one for trawling and another for gillnetting. However, no vessel should possess more than 6 licensed gears (for e.g., 3 trawl nets and 3 gillnets or 6 trawl nets).
Gujarat, the state with the longest coast line, permits mechanized fishing vessels fitted with square mesh at cod ends to carry out bottom trawling between 5 to 12 nautical miles within the territorial waters. The Maharashtrian regulatory framework prohibits operation of trawl nets by mechanized fishing vessels in certain specific area, and between 6 pm to 6 am. Moreover, there is a seasonal ban on trawler vessels. In other permissible areas, trawl gears are supposed to conform with the fixed mesh size.  The States of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, and West Bengal, and Union Territory of Daman & Diu and Puducherry, have adopted a seasonal ban approach towards trawlers. The trawler gears of the fishing vessels are obligated to comply with mesh size regulations.  The Government of Tamil Nadu has also banned fresh registration for bottom trawlers. Both, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and the Lakshadweep Islands do not ban the entire practice of bottom trawling, however, they have introduced certain conditional permissions. Accordingly, the mechanized fishing vessels wishing to operate conform to the permissible mesh size fitted with turtle excluder devise suitable for trawl nets. 
- Judicial Expositions on Bottom Trawling
At the State level, the closest action that has reflected an active attempt to prohibit bottom trawling was evident in a prohibitory order issued by the Kerala State Government which was challenged in the case of Kerala Swathanthra Malaya Thozhilali Federation v. Kerala Trawler Boat Operators Association. In the present case, the respondent- writ petitioner had challenged certain aspects of two orders issued by the Govt. Of Kerala pertaining prohibition on bottom-trawling in the territorial waters and EEZ during the monsoon period. With respect to the restriction on territorial waters, the SC acknowledged the scientific rationale behind the temporary ban submitted by the Kerala Government, which asserted that bottom trawling during monsoon season, which is the ecological spawning period of fish, has extreme adverse effects on their growth and availability.
Along the same lines, in Goa Environment Federation, Panaji v. State of Goa, the Bombay HC issued directions stating that the licenses of all the trawlers are to be automatically suspended during the monsoon ban period of each year. To further enforce these directions, the Court went to state that Insurance Companies shall not entertain claims for compensation due to mishaps at sea, from such mechanised vessels during the period of the ban.
In a very recent case of Olive Ridley Turtles v. Respondent: Principal Secretary, Forest and Environment Dept., the Odisha HC had appointed a Committee to study the trend in the mortality figure of Olive Ridley Sea turtles. The report submitted by the Committee stated that the mortality of the turtles along the Odisha coast is mainly due to trawling operations, as there is incidental killing of the turtles due to suffocation in fishing nets of trawlers or by injuries inflicted by the propellers of the trawlers. Upon recommendation, the Court, therefore, directed the strict enforcement of prohibition of fishing activities by trawlers in the area of Devi River Mouth and to ensure that no trawler enters the sanctuary areas.
- Suggestions for the Indian Framework
Keeping in view the fact that the livelihood of people living in the Indian coastal areas is highly dependent on the fishing industry, a complete ban on bottom trawling does not seem to be a viable option. As fisheries is one of the most profitable sectors accounting for total of 476 billion rupees in exports in the year 2020 alone, a complete ban or abolishment on bottom trawling has not been viewed as an economically viable solution. However, it is believed that periodical, seasonal bans backed by scientific reason, is a preferable and much needed alternative.
Recently, the Andhra Pradesh Government expressed its intention of amending its weak, obsolete Marine Fishing (Regulation) Act, 1995. The new, proposed regulations, based upon the recommendations of the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) and Central Marine Fisheries Technology (CMFT) will thus be focusing on sustainable and eco-friendly techniques. The CMFRI has recommended restriction of trawl fishing, conversion of trawlers to tuna liners, prohibition on catch of endangered and protected species, limiting mesh size in the trawl cods to reduce juvenile fish from getting caught, and advocated for the wide-use of by-catch reduction devices.
The recommendations given by these prominent bodies, must be uniformly adopted country-wise, with the States having power to alter the rules to make them stricter. However, it is believed that a basic, uniform regulatory framework regarding bottom trawling must be made mandatory, which shall not be subject to dilution.
Featured image sourced from – https://i.pinimg.com/originals/62/35/e7/6235e77259cfb5eeff053bdfaf84aab2.jpg
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