Avoiding deep trouble in the deep seas

Posted: 16 June 2006

Swift and wide-ranging actions are needed to conserve the world's entire marine environment amid fears that humankind's exploitation of the deep seas and open oceans is rapidly passing the point of no return, according to a new joint report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

The report, entitled Ecosystems and Biodiversity in Deep Waters and High Seas, argues that the many lessons learnt on conserving coastal waters should be adapted and applied right across the marine realm, including in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Yellow-green sponge on basalt wall
Yellow-green sponge on basalt wall
Yellow-green sponge on basalt wall. Photo courtesy of Deep Atlantic Stepping Stones Science Team/IFE/URI/NOAA.
Achim Steiner, UNEP’s Executive Director and until recently IUCN’s Director General, said: "Humankind's ability to exploit the deep oceans and high seas has accelerated rapidly over recent years. It is a pace of change that has outstripped our institutions and conservation efforts whose primary focus have been coastal waters where, until recently, most human activity like fishing and industrial exploration took place. We now most urgently need to look beyond the horizon and bring the lessons learnt in coastal water to the wider marine world."

“Well over 60 per cent of the marine world and its rich biodiversity, found beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, is vulnerable and at increasing risk. Governments must urgently develop the guidelines, rules and actions needed to bridge this gulf. Otherwise we stand to lose and to irrevocably damage unique wildlife and critical ecosystems many of which moderate our very existence on the planet,” said Ibrahim Thiaw, Acting Director General of IUCN.

With more than 90 per cent of the planet’s living biomass - the weight of life - found in the oceans, the report underlines the value of the deep seas and open oceans and highlights how science is only now just getting to grips with the wealth of life, natural resources and ecosystems existing in the marine world.

Less than 10 per cent of the oceans have been explored with only one millionth of the deep sea floor having been subject to biological investigations.

The report, launched on June 16th in New York at the UN Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea (UNICPOLOS) which feeds into the UN General Assembly, also highlights the way fisheries, pollution and other stresses such as those arising from global climate change are impacting and affecting the marine world.

“Once limited largely to shipping and open ocean fishing, commercial activities at sea are expanding rapidly and plunging ever deeper. Deep sea fishing, bioprospecting, energy development and marine scientific research are already taking place at depths of 2,000m or more,” says the report’s author, Kristina M. Gjerde, High Seas Policy Advisor to IUCN’s Global Marine Programme.“Throughout the oceans, shipping, military operations and seismic exploration have intensified with growing impacts on deep water and high sea ecosystems and biodiversity. The spectre of climate change and its impacts such as ocean warming and acidification underscore the need to reduce direct human impacts, because healthy ecosystems are better able to respond to changing oceanic conditions,” she adds.

Bleached coral on Heron Reef, south Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Photo: Justin Marshall
Bleached coral on Heron Reef, south Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Photo: Justin Marshall
Bleached coral on Heron Reef, south Great Barrier Reef, Australia.© Justin Marshall
Taking into account the discussions in various international fora and the emerging actions by individual countries, the author outlines options aimed at charting a course for progress into the 21st century for the conservation and sustainable management of the deep seas and open oceans.This includes actions and measures that reflect an integrated approach to oceans management based on ‘ecological boundaries' rather than just political ones, giving higher levels of protection to vulnerable species like deep sea fish as well as to biologically and ecologically significant ecosystems such as cold water corals and hydrothermal vent communities.

Other steps include the creation of a “precautionary system of marine protected areas” along with improved impact assessments that reflect the full range of possible human activities across the total marine environment. Both approaches are vital to conserve valuable marine biodiversity and to save poorly studied or understood species - before it is too late.

Some facts about Deep Waters and High Seas from the Report:

Deep waters

  • 90 per cent of the oceans are unexplored. Only some 0.0001 per cent of the deep seafloor has been subject to biological investigations.
  • About 50 per cent of animals collected from areas deeper than 3,000m are new species.
  • Cold-water coral reefs can be up to 8,500 years old, 35m high, 40km long, and 3km wide. They have been found so far off the coast of 41 countries from the poles to deep equatorial waters.
  • Communities living on hydrothermal vents and cold seeps obtain their energy from chemicals seeping from the Earth’s crust or ancient sediments. They are examples of life on Earth which does not depend directly on energy from the sun.
Cold-water coral reefs are home to a wide variety of other species. Selligrunnen reef, Trondheimsfjorden, Norway.© WWF/Erling Svensen
Cold-water coral reefs are home to a wide variety of other species. Selligrunnen reef, Trondheimsfjorden, Norway.© WWF/Erling Svensen
Cold-water coral reefs are home to a wide variety of other species. Selligrunnen reef, Trondheimsfjorden, Norway.© WWF/Erling Svensen

Global fishing

  • In the last 42 years, capture of wild marine fish for human consumption increased from 20 million tonnes to 84.5 million tonnes, with more than 40 per cent entering international trade.
  • Global by-catch amounts to 20 million tons a year, approximately 25 per cent of the fish caught.
  • Over half (52 per cent) of the global fish stocks are fully exploited. Overexploited and depleted species have increased from about 10% in the mid 1970s to 24 per cent in 2002.
  • Around 3.5 million fishing boats use the world’s ocean. 1 per cent of these are classified as large, industrial vessels, which have the capacity to take around 60 per cent of all the fish caught globally.
  • Catch from high seas bottom trawl fishing in 2001 was worth an estimated US$ 300-400 million, equal to approximately 0.5 per cent of the value of global marine catch. The sector employs an estimated 1,000-2,000 people using around 250-300 vessels (on a full time-equivalent basis).
  • The worldwide value of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) catches is estimated between US$4.9-9.5 billion. Up to 30 per cent of IUU fishing (US$ 1.2 billion) occurs beyond national jurisdiction.

Threatened marine biodiversity Each year, illegal longline fishing kills over 300,000 seabirds, including 100,000 albatrosses. 19 out of 21 albatross species are now threatened with extinction.

  • Populations of large fish with high commercial value, such as tuna, cod, swordfish and marlin, have declined by as much as 90 per cent in the past century.
  • Orange roughy, a commonly targeted deep sea fish, matures after around 32 years. A specimen of this species was recently found to be approximately 240 years old meaning that it was born about the time of Napoleon Bonaparte’s birth.
  • Over 46,000 pieces of plastic litter are floating on every square mile of ocean today. In the Central Pacific, there are up to 6 pounds of marine litter to every pound of plankton.
    The report can be downloaded here.