With half the planet up for grabs, a call for deep-ocean stewardship

May 15, 2014 by Mario Aguilera
Five vulnerable deep-ocean ecosystems: The deep ocean is at risk of becoming industrialized in a haphazard way without sufficient environmental planning. Human activities are increasing rapidly there, virtually out of sight and often beyond national jurisdiction and control. This compilation depicts ongoing and potential resource extraction activities of humans in the deep sea and habitats and animals that could be affected by them. Credit: © Tanya Young 2014

(Phys.org) —The world's deep ocean spans more than half the planet and untold quantities of untapped energy resources, precious metals, and minerals reside in its depths. Humankind needs and depends upon many of the deep ocean's treasures, and the race is already on to exploit them.

In the May 16 issue of Science, scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and their co-authors call for stewardship of the world's largest living space—striking a balance between wise use of vast resources and maintaining the deep ocean's delicate ecological balance—now before permanent loss occurs.

"Most of the deep ocean has never been explored. But what we have seen reveals a vast diversity of life forms and habitats important to the heath of our planet," said Lisa Levin, director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps Oceanography. "Slow-growing species are the norm, and some ecosystems once injured may never recover."

The deep ocean, below 200 meters (656 feet), faces mounting challenges, as impacts from activities such as fishing, oil and gas development, waste disposal, and land-based pollution have already caused long-term and possibly irreversible injury to some deep ocean environments. Industrial-scale mining looms on the horizon. Governance of the water column and the seabed below 200 meters (656 feet) is a mixed bag of regulations across national and international jurisdictions, throwing more stumbling blocks in the path to ensure the long-term health of the deep ocean.

"To advance deep-ocean stewardship," said Kathryn Mengerink, lead author of the paper, the CMBC senior fellow for environmental law and policy, and the Environmental Law Institute's Ocean Program co-director, "we need to move forward with caution, protecting and minimizing impacts to known sensitive species and areas and the vast unknown. We should invest in improving our knowledge of the deep before further exploiting its resources, so that we don't suffer irreversible loss of incredible organisms and ecosystems."

The International Seabed Authority has already developed regulations for mining exploration for the international seabed and has just started the process to develop exploitation regulations. In addition, many nations are in the process of leasing for offshore mining.

According to Mengerink, "Now is the time to carefully design laws and policies that enable wise use of mining and other resources, while maintaining healthy oceans and communities."

Given the substantial knowledge gaps, future exploitation of deep-ocean resources will inevitably be punctuated with new discoveries as well as unexpected harmful effects of planned activities. Both will require transparent and adaptive decision-making, balancing exploitation with lasting protection of habitats, biodiversity, and ecosystem services.

The ideas for this paper arose during an inaugural meeting of the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI).

According to 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."

This paper is part of ELI's broader efforts to support sustainable management of the , including its Gulf of Mexico Program to support the public's role in restoration in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster of 2010.

The J.M. Kaplan Fund and the International Network for Scientific Investigation of deep-sea ecosystems (INDEEP) through a grant from Fondation Total have supported development of the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative.

Explore further: Past decade saw unprecedented warming in the deep ocean

More information: "A Call for Deep-Ocean Stewardship," by K.J. Mengerink et al. Science, 2014. www.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/science.1251458

Related Stories

Past decade saw unprecedented warming in the deep ocean

July 2, 2013

From 1975 on, the global surface ocean has shown a pronounced-though wavering-warming trend. Starting in 2004, however, that warming seemed to stall. Researchers measuring the Earth's total energy budget-the balance of sunlight ...

Ocean health in 'downward spiral'

October 4, 2013

The health of the ocean is spiralling downwards far more rapidly than previously thought, according to a new review of marine science.

Deep ocean needs policy, stewardship where it never existed

February 16, 2014

Technological advances have made the extraction of deep sea mineral and precious metal deposits feasible, and the dwindling supply of land-based materials creates compelling economic incentives for deep sea industrialization. ...

NSF grant allows UGA researchers to monitor deep-sea plumes

April 1, 2014

Deep-sea hydrothermal plumes—waters nearly two miles down in the ocean—are home to processes that effect life across the planet. However, high pressure and water temperatures that exceed 300 degrees Celsius have made ...

Imploding sub a 'tragic loss': Titanic director

May 13, 2014

Hollywood director James Cameron Tuesday mourned a "tragic loss" after a deep sea research vessel imploded nearly 10 kilometres (six miles) beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean.

Recommended for you

Earth's mineralogy unique in the cosmos

August 26, 2015

New research from a team led by Carnegie's Robert Hazen predicts that Earth has more than 1,500 undiscovered minerals and that the exact mineral diversity of our planet is unique and could not be duplicated anywhere in the ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Sinister1812
5 / 5 (1) May 16, 2014
Or we could all just stop trying to own the planet?

It doesn't need a price to be valuable.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.