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Avoiding deep trouble in the deep seas
Posted: 16 Jun 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. 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.
© 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

Cold-water coral reefs are home to<br> a wide variety of other species.<br> Selligrunnen reef, Trondheimsfjorden, Norway.<br>© 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

Threatened marine biodiversity

The report can be downloaded here.

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