Urgent call to save treasures of the deep

Posted: 8 June 2004

Author: John Rowley

Conservationists from around the world are calling for urgent measures to protect the vast hidden treasures of the deep seas. They say that while only a fraction of the seas below 200 metres has been studied, research has revealed a huge diversity of unique species, possibly numbering as many as 100 million.

As a result, the deep ocean is increasingly recognised as a major global reservoir of the Earth's biodiversity, comparable to that of tropical rainforests and coral reefs.

However the open ocean and deep sea environments, which make up half the Earth's surface, are beyond national jurisdiction and therefore out of any one state's capacity to control or protect.

"While there is much to be done in coastal and offshore waters, damage caused by growing human activities to high seas biodiversity and productivity continues to escalate, harming or destroying species and habitats, and altering ecosystems faster than scientists can study them" says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Head of IUCN Global Marine Programme.

Speaking on World Environment Day, June 5, this year devoted to seas and oceans, he said: "Urgent and immediate action is required to reduce the known risks from high seas bottom trawling and provide protection to important biodiversity areas."

Destructive Practices

The development of new fishing technologies and markets for deep-sea fish products has enabled fishing vessels to begin exploiting deep-sea ecosystems. By far the most widespread activity affecting the biodiversity of the deep sea is bottom trawl fishing, which consists of dragging heavy chains, nets and steel plates across the ocean floor.

Over 1000 marine scientists from around the world have joined together to express their profound concern that bottom trawling is an especially serious threat causing unprecedented damage to deep sea coral and sponge communities on the continental margin and on seamounts and mid-ocean ridges. They want to see a moratorium on all high seas bottom trawling.

The high seas are the least protected part of the world. Although there are some treaties that protect ocean-going species such as whales, as well as some fisheries agreements, there are no protected areas in the high seas.

IUCN is also urging the UN General Assembly to call for immediate protection of seamounts, deep water corals and other biodiversity hotspots from high seas bottom trawling until these vulnerable areas can be identified and measures to protect them adopted and enforced, including effective international management measures for bottom trawl fisheries in these areas.

Protected Areas

The conservationists also want to see a big increase in marine protected areas. Less than one per cent of our seas and oceans are protected compared to the 11.5 per cent of the Earth's land surface. Increasing their number in coastal zones and establishing new protected areas in the high seas are opportunities that nations have to seize, they say.

Unfortunately, ocean management is scattered among a complex network of regional and international bodies. Only a tiny number of these have any control over fisheries beyond national jurisdiction. Illegal and unregulated fishing is a common practice in the high seas.

There is one good tool for managing these high seas fisheries - the UN Agreement on Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks. But this needs to be , says IUCN.

That and other ways of governing the oceans are now urgently needed if the treasurers of the deep are not be sacrificed to short-term greed.

For more information contact: IUCN