A Call for Deep Ocean Stewardship
The world’s deep ocean spans more than half the planet. 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, Dr Kathryn Mengerink from the Environmental Law Institute Washington and Scripps Oceanographic Institution (USA), and 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.
According to co-author Eva Ramirez-Llodra from the Norwegian Institute for Water Research in Oslo; “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 health of our planet. Slow growing species are the norm, and some ecosystems, once injured, may never recover.”
Photo: Janne Kim Gitmark, NIVA.
Move forward with caution
The deep ocean, below 200 meters, 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 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.
“As we explain in the paper, to advance deep-ocean stewardship,” Dr. Mengerink says in a press release, “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 do not suffer irreversible loss of incredible organisms and ecosystems.”
A unique opportunity
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 Dr. Ramirez-Llodra, “Because deep-sea mining has not started yet, scientists, industry, policy makers and environmental organisations have the unique opportunity to work together to develop ecosystem-based management options that would balance resource use benefits with maintaining ecosystem biodiversity and function”. 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 Dr. 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”
The J.M. Kaplan Fund (USA) and the International Network for Scientific Investigation of Deep-Sea Ecosystems (INDEEP, of which Dr Ramirez-Llodra is a co-founder and co-PI), through a grant from Fondation Total (France), have supported development of the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative.