June 9, 2005

Researchers Say New Deep Sea Rules Needed

UNITED NATIONS -- Leaps in technology have made the darkest reaches of the sea much easier to explore, necessitating new rules to govern the precious resources of the deep, researchers said in a report.

The report released Thursday said that scientists have begun to focus on the possible human health benefits to be gained from genetic material of "extremophiles," the organisms that thrive under extreme conditions in the deep.

Now that so-called "bioprospecting" has become more feasible, governments must address the fact that there are few rules governing the seabeds in international waters, said the report from the Japan-based United Nations University Institute for Advanced Studies.

"The legal and policy framework is not even close to keeping pace with the fast-evolving science and technology of deep seabed bioprospecting," report contributor Sam Johnston said in a statement.

The report said that uncertainty about the rules deters the private sector from committing to investments or research into these seabeds, which tend to be richest where they are most remote - and thus beyond national sea boundaries.

Scientists fear that deep sea ecosystems, which includes seamounts and hydrothermal vents, could suffer permanent damage if not treated properly.

Most research of these ecosystems is still largely done for science, but the report forecasts that the potential of the "blue gold" in the deep could draw more commercial exploration.

Science and medicine have found many uses for resources found beneath the ocean, from fighting cancer to treating osteoporosis.

As an example, the report said the annual profits from a compound taken from a sea sponge to treat herpes are estimated at US$50 million (euro41 million) to US$100 million (euro82 million).

The report recommends that the U.N. General Assembly adopt guidelines on bioprospecting deep seabeds until a mandatory set of rules is created.