Europe seeks to protect mid-Atlantic high seas

BERGEN, Norway (Reuters) - European nations agreed on Friday to set up fishing-free zones in remote parts of the Atlantic Ocean in the world’s first high seas network of protected areas beyond the control of national governments.

Twin brothers Paul and Bode Lesiewicz play in a pool of water in front of the Atlantic Ocean as the area awaits Hurricane Earl in Nags Head, North Carolina September 2, 2010. REUTERS/Richard Clement

Environment ministers from 15 European states, forming the OSPAR group overseeing the North-East Atlantic, said they would seek recognition of the six areas at the United Nations and from the United States and Canada on the other side of the ocean.

“This is a historic step,” Norwegian Environment Minister Erik Solheim told Reuters after the September 23-24 talks in Bergen, West Norway. “We will try to inspire other nations to do the same, like in the Indian ocean, the Pacific and other oceans.”

“It will give a new level of protection to species living in the mid-Atlantic,” he said. Species include whales, sharks, rays, orange roughy and cold-water corals.

Protection might mean permanent bans on fishing or seabed drilling or mining, perhaps even restrictions on shipping.

The six zones, covering a total 285,000 sq kms (110,000 sq miles) or an area equivalent in size to Italy or the U.S. state of Arizona, are mainly north of the Azores and west of Ireland.

European Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik also praised the deal as “a ground-breaking initiative.”

Delegates said an area of about 80,000 sq kms off Antarctica is the only other marine protected area in the high seas and that the Atlantic plan is the first network.


But the deal exposed differences among European nations in planning for new U.N. rules that grant countries rights to the seabed if their continental shelves of shallower waters extend beyond national waters 200 nautical miles from shore.

Portugal approved protected zones off the Azores in an area where it may have extra rights to the seabed, while Iceland refused.

“We are very dependent on fish. The marine protected areas will be beneficial for fisheries,” Humberto Rosa, Portuguese Secretary of State for the Environment, told Reuters.

He said Lisbon was betting that benefits of fishing-free areas, including a permanent ban on trawlers that drag nets over the seabed, would outweigh any possible future gains such as finds of oil or minerals in the zone.

Iceland, however, refused to grant protection to an area of the high seas south of the volcanic island where it claims the seabed under the U.N. rules. The meeting agreed to new talks on the issue until 2012.

Delegates said Britain, Ireland, Norway and Denmark, which also hope to extend their seabed areas, backed Iceland.

“We’re happy that six marine protected areas beyond national jurisdiction were agreed,” said Stefan Lutter of the WWF conservation group. But he expressed disappointment that the zone off Iceland was left out.

OSPAR said that the zones represented about 3.1 percent of the marine area it oversees. Worldwide, only about one percent of the seas are protected, far less than 12 percent of land areas that are in parks.

The OSPAR nations also reaffirmed that they would review rules for new oil and gas drilling licences in deep waters but stopped short of a moratorim on after BP Plc’s April blowout in the Gulf of Mexico caused the worst spill in U.S. history.

Greenpeace protesters held up banners outside the meeting saying: “Stop deep sea drilling.”

Editing by Peter Graff