Four of Russia's largest fishing groups -- Norebo Group, JVC Arkhangelsk Trawl Fleet, the Fishing Industry Union of the North, and F.E.S.T. Group -- have signed an agreement to restrict bottom trawling in the Barents Sea.

The agreement relates specifically to the conservation of "bottom vulnerable biotopes", namely underwater sponges and coral forests in the Barents Sea.

It will enter into force on Aug.1, 2020 and any other Russian or foreign fishing companies or fishery associations are also being invited to sign up.

At present, the new agreement covers 97 Russian vessels fishing cod, haddock, saithe and shrimp in the northeastern Arctic.

The companies that signed the agreement are harvesting more than 90 percent of Russian cod and haddock in the Barents Sea by way of bottom trawling, which has a negative impact on the seabed and its inhabitants.

In order to reduce this impact and preserve vulnerable ecosystems in line with the Marine Steward Certification (MSC) standards, Russian fishermen together with WWF Russia identified three special sites which are home to valuable areas of sponges, corals and sea feathers.

The total area of these sites -- two of which are located in the north and one in the southwest of the Barents Sea -- covers 14,000 square miles, and fishermen will restrict wherever possible their fishing activities with the use of traditional bottom trawls.

Independent monitoring

The agreement also provides a mechanism for independent monitoring of the fishing activities in the selected areas and for collecting scientific data to ensure the fulfilment of obligations under this agreement.

"We will use data both from Automatic Identification System (AIS) and on-board observers, which will record by-catches of bottom dwelling organisms," Sergey Sennikov, spokesperson for Norebo, told IntraFish.

The information will be loaded into a common database, processed and analyzed with the main aim of obtaining reliable scientific data on the ecosystem and develop appropriate conservation methods, he said.

WWF Russia praised the importance of the signed agreement.

"The decision by these four largest fishing groups is an unprecedented step towards the development of sustainable fisheries in the Arctic," Konstantin Zgurovsky, senior advisor to WWF Russia, told IntraFish.

“But work does not end there, now the most important thing is that this agreement will not remain on paper only," he said.

The agreement does not prohibit fishing in the selected areas of the Barents Sea, but aims to ensure solid data is collected and the impact on vulnerable ecosystems are limited.