Deep Ocean Management Needed To Protect Earth's Last Frontier
February 17, 2014

Deep Ocean Management Needed To Protect Earth’s Last Frontier

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Advancements in extraction technology have made minerals and other resources in the deep sea more accessible than ever, yet knowledge of how the pursuit of these resources might affect the surrounding deep-sea ecosystem is somewhat limited.

Now, a group of scientists is calling for a new "stewardship mentality" across countries, economic sectors, and disciplines that is focused on maintaining future health and integrity of the deep ocean.

“We’re really in the dark when it comes to the ecology of the deep sea," said Linwood Pendleton, director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. "We know a lot about a few places, but nobody is dealing with the deep sea as a whole, and that lack of general knowledge is a problem for decision-making and policy.”

On Sunday, Pendleton – along with Cindy Lee Van Dover, director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory, and Lisa Levin, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego – called for a comprehensive deep-sea stewardship program at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago.

“It is imperative to work with industry and governance bodies to put progressive environmental regulations in place before industry becomes established, instead of after the fact," Van Dover said. "One hundred years from now, we want people to say ‘they got this right based on the science they had, they weren’t asleep at the wheel.’”

The scientists said marine life depletion and the search for new sources for energy and precious materials currently threatens deep-sea ecosystems. While gas and oil exploration now routinely targets areas thousands of feet below the ocean surface, the need for metals used to make modern technology devices has fueled a push by the mining sector into increasingly deeper waters.

"Vast tracts of deep seabed are now being leased in order to mine nodules, crusts, sulfides, and phosphates rich in elements demanded by our advanced economy," said Levin.

She added that rising greenhouse gas emissions are exposing deep-sea ecosystems to further stress from climate change effects that include warmer temperatures, changes to food supplies, and diminishing pH and oxygen levels.

"Extraction from the deep sea is a tradeoff. Is the value of what we're extracting greater than the damage?" asked Pendleton. "Are there ways to extract that might be more economically costly but have lower ecological impact? How can we repair the considerable damage that has already been done to the sea floor through trawling, pollution, and other practices? These are questions that we need to answer before industrial activity gets ahead of scientific understanding."

Levin said the new stewardship program should take up a "precautionary" mode of thinking that promotes sustainable, ecosystem-based management across national and industry borders.

"We need international cooperation and an entity that can develop and oversee deep-ocean stewardship," she said. "We also need multiple sources of research funding that can help provide the scientific information that we need to manage the deep sea. All of this will require efforts that bridge several disciplines and engage stakeholders in these discussions."