Protecting a Forgotten World

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Dutch biologist Dr Erik Dücker suggests that better regulations are needed for deep-sea biology, in his research conducted at Radboud University.

Conservation is a topic that has been exposed to us from a young age and the need for sustainability has always been a hot topic in our education and on the news during our lifetime. We are increasing the number of conservation methods to protect endangered species and fragile ecosystems that act as host to a wide variety of organisms. So why is it that we have forgotten about the need and importance for deep-sea environment conservation? Is it simply because it is a world that we cannot see: out of sight, out of mind? There are no cuddly pandas or exotic jaguars that people want to protect, so why bother?

Deep-sea exploration covers anything from the depths of 1000m and below. It is a dark, cold environment which was once thought to be one of the most hostile places on Earth. Truthfully, the deep-sea is so vast and hospitable that it covers roughly 98.5% of the total area for life on Earth. The marine life found at these depths includes fish, molluscs, crustaceans, jellies and even sperm whales hunting the infamous giant squid. Seamounts, mountains rising from the oceans floor, are key habitats for rich, deep-sea coral reef systems which, in turn, act as a habitat for even more specialised organisms. The isolation of these seamounts means that each could be home to different specialised species and the destruction of a single seamount could be devastating to populations of potentially undiscovered species.

The depths of the ocean are the only places on Earth where scientists have (metaphorically speaking) seen fossils come to life. The belief that our ancestor, the coelacanth (a fish from the Sarcopterygii class), was long lost left scientists shocked as one species was discovered in 1938 and another in 1998. From the depths, two extinct species suddenly became extant.

Recent discoveries include new species of comb jellyfish…

As exploration of the depths has increased, despite funding being relatively low and costs huge, new species get discovered on every visit which highlights the huge diversity of the environment.

…and the Yeti Crab.

 

 

 

 

 

With the deep-sea such a surprisingly rich and exciting environment, you would think it is at the top of the list in terms of conservation, surely? Unfortunately, unregulated human activity is a constant threat to this rich environment as the commercial potential of exploiting this virtually untouched environment is huge for fishing and mining companies.

In the attempt to catch fish and crustaceans of commercial value at extreme depths, fishing trawlers currently sweep the sea bed with large nets which is devastating for both the sea bed and the diversity of life that encompasses the deep ocean. Consequently, ‘non-target’ fish are also caught in this process and hauled from the depths, before being tossed back into the ocean.

BP has already demonstrated, in 2010, the devastation human impact can have on the natural world after covering miles of ocean and land in oil. Who can forget the images of oil-covered seabirds? What is largely unknown is the impact it caused on deep-sea life. Dr Paul Montagna (University of Texas) took samples of diversity of the depths in a 9km radius of the spill and discovered a decrease in 30% of the natural biodiversity. Wood Hole Oceanographic Institute also found coral communities severely damaged at areas miles from the spill and at great depths. These findings demonstrate how fragile this environment is.

Due to the identification of large rare-metal stores at these depths, mining companies in recent years have been interested in gaining access to these depths and this vast store of valuable materials. Of particular interest are manganese nodules containing a store of rare metals used for multiple reasons in the technology industry. The means of harvesting these nodules would however cause great disruption to the fragile state of the deep-sea and have huge effects on biodiversity. As Dr Dücker says, “Harvesting manganese nodules is anything but sustainable. They are not replaceable because nodule formation is the slowest geological process we know.”

Currently, the International Seabed Authority (ISA)  are the leaders in deep-sea regulation and affairs and are in charge of approving any commercial licenses. In 2012, a license was given to Canadian miners Nautilus Minerals to extract gold and silver from an area of 1.6km off the coast of Papa New Guinea despite huge protests. These mining operations are increasing in quantity and each pose a threat to the deep-sea.

With this in mind, the next question is ‘so how can we achieve this sustainably?’ At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be a viable response to this question. There is such a limited amount of regulation regarding the deep-sea environment that these operations will continue. This being said, there was a summit held in March earlier this year regarding deep-sea mining and the Deep Sea Mining Campaign are raising attention for the welfare of the biodiversity in our depths.

It’s important to regard all forms of conservation as important as the next. The ultimate aim of conservation and sustainability is to take from our Earth in a responsible way so that it doesn’t damage ecosystems and will be reusable in future generations. We cannot take advantage of this forgotten, underwater world and we have to consider those angler fish as important as those famous pandas.

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