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Shipping in the Sargasso

Greenpeace demands greater ocean protection after nearly 2,000km of fishing line was dragged through Sargasso Sea last year
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
A small clump of sargassum floats by the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, on an expedition to the Sargasso Sea

Main image: A small clump of sargassum floats by the he Greenpeace ship Esperanza, on an expedition to the Sargasso Sea in 2019 © Shane Gross / Greenpeace

New figures released by Greenpeace UK reveal the extent of industrial fishing and shipping in the Sargasso Sea.

The overall volume of vessels of any type crossing the Sargasso has increased by more than 30% since 2018.

The vast majority (97%) of fishing activity involves drifting longlines associated with high levels of bycatch of marine mammals, turtles, seabirds and sharks. 

The findings are released as pressure mounts on the UK government to both ratify the UN Global Oceans Treaty and put forward the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic Ocean as one of the major first ocean sanctuaries under the treaty.

‘We’ve seen with our own eyes how the Sargasso Sea is a wildlife haven for many species that are found nowhere else, as well as for baby sea turtles and seabirds on their epic migrations across the Atlantic Ocean. But this research shows the sea is a Wild West that is facing growing pressure from shipping and industrial fishing fleets. 

‘Drifting longlines pose a major risk to this precious ecosystem because they fish indiscriminately, hooking marine mammals, turtles, seabirds and sharks along with their intended catch. Huge container ships and tankers plough through these waters every waking hour. In order to give the life of the Sargasso a fighting chance, governments must ratify the Global Ocean Treaty as soon as possible and champion the Sargasso Sea as the world’s first ocean sanctuary under the Treaty.’

Oceans campaigner for Greenpeace UK

What are longlines?

Fishing lines called drifting longlines consist of a main line kept near the surface with regularly spaced floats and long branches with baited hooks.

Surface longlines can be very long, from 20 kilometres to more than 100 kilometres, and target large pelagic fish like tuna, swordfish and sharks.

In the Sargasso Sea alone in 2023, fishing vessels used drifting longlines with an estimated combined total length of 1,980 kilometres, enough to cover the distance from the UK to Morocco.

Data on fishing activity

The new data on fishing activity was compiled using data from Global Fishing Watch – an open-access database that tracks fishing vessels in almost real-time – and Automatic Information System, or AIS, tracking data transmitted from boats’ communication systems and compiled by Lloyd’s List Intelligence.

It reveals that fishing vessels spent a combined total of 22,881 hours engaged in apparent fishing activity in Sargasso Sea in 2023.

The data show that these vessels mostly originated from Taiwan (13,021 hours of fishing in 2023), USA (4,169 hours), China Mainland (2,789 hours) and Spain (2,311 hours). 

Including fishing vessels, more than 9,000 ships spent a combined total of 213 years crossing the Sargasso Sea in 2023 with a combined weight of over 500 million tonnes.

The majority of these vessels (7,236) were giant ships more than 100m long, weighing over 10,000 tonnes each.

Greenpeace in the Sargasso

The Arctic Sunrise has spent the last three weeks on a voyage through the Sargasso Sea. It has been documenting the stunning wildlife that lives there, conducting scientific research and engaging with decision-makers in Bermuda and the wider region.

Greenpeace UK is organising an open letter from Bermudian civil society, calling on the UK government to propose the Sargasso Sea as the first ocean sanctuary under the Global Ocean Treaty.

The letter also calls on UK foreign secretary David Cameron to ratify the Treaty before a General Election.

Greenpeace UK is holding a high-level political workshop in Bermuda, with representatives of the Bermudian government and other stakeholders including from the fishing community, to discuss the creation of a high seas ocean sanctuary on the Sargasso Sea as a part of a global network of protected areas.

Since most of the Sargasso Sea lies in the high seas, outside national borders, tools for restricting human activity here have been extremely limited.

The Global Ocean Treaty agreed in March last year makes it possible for governments to create sanctuaries on the high seas – like national parks at sea – where marine life can recover and thrive.

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