Experts Call For Urgent Collaborative Action to Protect The Deep Sea

deep sea organism

An Ocean and Earth Southampton oceanographer is working with experts from around the globe to warn against lasting damage to the deep-ocean, caused by fishing, oil and gas development, industrial-scale mining, waste disposal and land-based pollution.

The big beautiful ocean currently covers about 71% of the Earth’s surface and makes up about 97% of the it’s water. It is the largetst habitat for life on Earth. Even more interesting is the fact that 95% of the ocean is unexplored territory. We have huge gaps in knowledge about the deep sea and lack understanding of what lives there and how the different species interact with each other and the environment.

Dr. Maria Baker of the University of Southampton is a principle investigator of a program called INDEEP. The mission statement of this program as stated on their website, reads: “The aim of the International Network for Scientific Investigations of Deep-Sea Ecosystems (INDEEP) is to develop and synthesise our understanding of deep-sea global biodiversity and functioning and provide a framework to bridge the gap between scientific results and society to aid in the formation of sustainable management strategies.” Their initiative known as Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI) seeks to integrate science, technology, policy, law and economics to advise on ecosystem-based management of resource use in the deep ocean and strategies to maintain the integrity of deep-ocean ecosystems within and beyond national jurisdiction.

Dr. Baker and co-authors wrote a paper called “A Call for Deep-Ocean Stewardship” for Science Magazine. They call for a balance to be struck between the wise use of resources and maintenance of the deep ocean’s delicate ecological balance. Oceans are a critical to sustaining life on Earth as they play an integral role in Earth’s systems which includes climate and weather. Protecting our oceans is vital!

The deep oceans are rich with living and non-living resources. As resources are depleted on land and in shallow waters we are increasingly looking to the deep oceans to replenish supplies. As technology advances and we gain access to these deep sea resources, experts such as Dr. Baker are urging extreme caution, highlighting the potentially irreversible damage that extracting such materials can cause.

Carbon dioxide is a gas also known as “greenhouse gases.” According to Climate.gov, “These gases absorb warmth from their surroundings and re-radiate some of it back toward Earth’s surface, slowing the rate at which the planet loses heat. This “greenhouse effect” is nothing new: plants and animals have enjoyed the benefits of its warming influence for billions of years. Without the greenhouse effect, Earth’s average temperature would fall below freezing. However, human activities are now increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, amplifying the natural warming caused by the greenhouse effect.”

Since the start of the industrial revolution we have seen a staggering increase in human population growth while at the same time humans began burning coal, natural gas, and oil to power machines for manufacturing and transportation. Since then, we have burned more fossil fuels each decade, releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide that were previously stored in the ground into the atmosphere. Over the last 150 years, humans drove up carbon dioxide concentration in the air from 280 parts per million (ppm) to more than 385 ppm – a value that is 38 percent higher than the highest value measured for over the previous 800,000 years. And the amount of carbon dioxide that humans release every year is still rising! Much of the carbon dioxide ends up stored in the oceans and is actually warming the them. Scientists are concerned that carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean from the atmosphere is increasing the acidity of seawater. This change in ocean chemistry interferes with the ability of marine plants and animals to build their shells, ultimately threatening a reorganization of the entire marine food chain, which could lead to a mass extinction event.

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As reported on Science Daily, “The deep-ocean, below 200 meters, extends across national and international authorities and is managed separately by individual sectors. This means an area protected against trawler fishing, for example, could still be considered for mining operations and vice versa. The paper suggests this approach is not sufficient to ensure a balanced, sustainable use of resources and calls for further collaboration to manage to the cumulative effects of these activities.”

“Currently, governance of our deep-ocean is fragmented,” Dr Baker says, “We need to achieve integrated thinking and communication across all deep-sea stakeholders and across all jurisdictions – this is key to delivering the best possible solutions for future deep-ocean resource use and long-term environmental protection.”

The deep-ocean has already seen long term and potentially irreversible damage caused by human actions. One fifth of the continental slope (an area of 4.4 million km2) has been trawled at least once and often multiple times by the fishing industry. Deep sea trawling destroys anything in its path. Many deep sea species are slow growing and long lived and not conducive to over-fishing as the communities and populations would take a very long time to recover.

Damage via deep-sea trawling. Before and after image.

Damage via deep-sea trawling. Before and after image.

According to the paper by Dr. Baker and team, the underwater environment has long served as an international dumping ground for radioactive waste, sewage and toxic chemicals. This is a common practice for corporations to save money in an economic system driven by profit.

Deep-ocean mining is an emerging industry and the International Seabed Authority has already developed regulations for mining exploration of the international seabed. In addition, many nations are in the process of leasing offshore mining.

Dr Baker said: “We require transparency and flexibility within all areas of governance to make this work. Management should be a dynamic process whereby strategies will evolve as we learn more about our deep-ocean ecosystems and their response and resilience to exploitation. We should not hesitate – we need to move forward at once. Future generations depend upon our actions.”

According to Dr Lisa Levin, one of DOSI’s founders, “The Initiative is designed to bring natural and social scientists, regulators, the private sector and civil society together to provide guidance on environmental management of the deep-ocean. We humans don’t have a great track record with stewardship of land and our coastal ocean. Hopefully, we can do a better job with the deep half of the planet.”

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