IN TOO DEEP? PROTECTING DEEP-SEA MARINE ECOSYSTEMS

By Melanie Emr
Staff Writer

On February 11, 2014, I attended a conference at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography entitled “Deep Trouble: Challenges of Managing and Protecting Deep Sea Resources,” which informed me of the need to involve both science and policy in the challenge of protecting the marine ecosystems of the deep that are threatened by large scale, industrial deep-sea resource extraction. The “deep sea” is considered the oceanic zone 200 meters below the surface. Although it makes up as much as two-thirds of our planet, it remains a mysterious and undiscovered frontier. Surprisingly, even oceanographers and marine scientists today are limited in their knowledge of deep-sea benthic ecosystems. They have few technological advancements permitting them to observe and document life on the deep sea floor; Even the most advanced scientific submarine cannot exceed depths of more than 1000 meters, and the ocean can extend 5300 meters deep. [1]

Part of the mystery of the deep sea includes the marine organisms that live in the environment. The seamount research conducted by NIWA, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, seeks to address the biodiversity and vulnerability of various deep-sea habitats and marine life. Diverse deep-sea habitats include areas such as continental slope, seamounts, hydrothermal vents and canyons. The non-biological life processes that deep-sea organisms must undergo to survive, demonstrate how the deep-sea environment is a complex and fascinating arena of study. Deep-sea organisms use chemosynthesis to obtain energy from the production of food, a process similar to photosynthesis, yet is conducted without the use of sunlight. Chemosynthesis is often conducted around hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. “The energy comes from the oxidization of inorganic chemicals that the organisms find in their environment.” Also, deep-sea fauna are so incredibly diverse that every “second specimen collected from waters deeper than 3000 meters likely belongs to a new species.” The Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative seeks to uncover those mysteries of the deep, attempting to taxonomically identify and classify benthic species, since as much as 91% of species await description. It works towards applying science, technology, policy, law and economics to inform the public of ecosystem-based, resource-use management for the deep ocean and methods to preserve the “integrity of deep-ocean ecosystems within and beyond national jurisdiction.”

The deep sea floor environment is also an alien world, both puzzling and extraordinary to marine scientists. Scripps scientists were among the first to discover this world of deep-sea hydrothermal vents where volcanism yields a distinctive realm of marine life. [1] It seems impossible to believe that life could exist in such a hostile environment. However, life is indeed abundant and thriving even thousands of meters deep, which means that marine researchers must spread awareness to industrial developers of how their anthropogenic activities are potentially harming such ecosystems. The special mineral-leaching hydrothermal vents along the deep sea floor provide an environment rich in Manganese nodules, which are rounded formations of iron and manganese oxides that contain scarce minerals such as copper, nickel and cobalt. They tend to form at depths as great as 3500 meters beneath the surface. Despite this scarcity, the deep-sea environment is undergoing degradation from unsustainable deep-sea mining activities as private industries reap minerals abundant on the deep ocean floor. With an era of expanding deep-sea industrialization, involving commercial fishing and high demands for deep-sea oil sources, science and policy must keep up with this industrial “race to the deep,” before deep-sea marine ecosystems are driven to extinction. [1]

The exotic resources of the deep sea have become vital to industries such as energy giant BP. The benthic zones, the seafloor zones of the deep sea are, despite popular belief, teeming with fascinating marine life that is in need of protection from anthropogenic activities. Companies worldwide have expanding deep-sea mining activities on their agenda. This is the hot topic of this year’s Oceanology International conference, an internationally renowned exhibition on marine science and technology. According to the conference events coordinator James Coleman, “with high commodity prices driving a resurgence of interest in ocean mining, there are new and exciting applications being created for ocean technologies.” [1]

With this “industrial race to the deep,” marine scientists are becoming experts in designing robots for deep-ocean exploration in order to better grasp the complexity of deep-sea marine ecosystems and how human impact could potentially be harming them. A recently deployed Nautilus submarine expedition in the Gulf of Mexico set out to measure the impacts of shipwrecks on the seafloor and the surrounding biological communities, particularly megafauna surrounding methane seeps. Submersibles launched from Nautilus effectively ground-truthed new methane seeps with surrounding mussel beds. Upon examining the human impact on the seafloor, the researchers discovered that leaching of toxic copper from the vessel hull actually prevented invertebrate colonization. The fact that the hull impeded invertebrate colonization demonstrates how anthropogenic debris is contributing to chemical imbalances in the deep sea, a pressing concern for the marine science community.

With the advent of new technologies to mine the deep, however, science and policy must work in conjunction with industries to ensure that deep-sea mining is responsible and sustainable. As a potential case study, England is proposing amendments to deep-sea mining laws to show that it is willing to compete in the global marketplace with a more sustainable approach. On February 7, the Deep Sea Mining Bill was proposed to the House of Lords in the English parliament. The bill “seeks to bring forward greater regulations to the emerging industry, with an emphasis placed on protecting the marine environment.” Whether or not the bill passes under the pressure to drill at ever-increasing rates from prominent oil industries is an issue still to be determined. Policy makers must establish government agendas that incorporate sustainable deep-sea resource management while “scientists develop a better understanding of the ecological structure functioning of the largest biome on the planet.”

In addition to the challenges of achieving a world with sustainable resource extraction and mining of the deep, marine researchers face yet another problem plaguing the deep-sea ecosystems: trash. Anyone who has ever walked down a popular beach along the pacific coastline has noticed the sad reality of trash parcels left by careless beachgoers that eventually end up in the digestive systems of marine animals. Yet what about the trash that makes it all the way to the benthic zone of the deep ocean? The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) sent 200 vehicles into the deep sea each year for a period of 22 years to measure the biological, geological and chemical impacts of anthropogenic debris. Their cameras recorded over 1150 pieces of debris. The debris mainly consisted of plastic, but also metal, aluminum and steel-based objects. Analysis of the debris impact shows that “the debris may be altering ecosystem dynamics by providing habitat for alien or invasive species.”

Even worse yet, the effects of deep-sea trash may endure for years. The environmental conditions consisting of near freezing water, a lack of sunlight and low oxygen concentrations prevent the growth of bacteria that should decay debris. Under such conditions, a plastic bag or aluminum can exist for decades, or even centuries. If scientists remove debris, this may actually cause more harm than good, since marine organisms tend to attach to debris and form new communities. With the effects of marine pollution problem worsening in the deep ocean, scientists and researchers hope to inspire coastal residents and industries to keep litter from entering the marine environment as a viable and cost-effective solution.

Now you may ask yourself, why should deep-sea organisms and ecosystems be protected from harmful anthropogenic activities? And why should mining companies and oil industries care? In all actuality, the deep sea may become a new frontier in biomedicine. Recent studies have concluded that organisms living in these habitats are physiologically and genetically unique, which leads scientists to believe they have great potential for emergent commercial medicines. [1] Biotechnological advancements are developing through the study of deep-sea marine microbes. For example, marine scientists at Scripps recently discovered marine compounds from marine microbes that could potentially be used as antibiotics to help fight drug-resistant infections. [1] The deep sea could also be a useful resource in cancer research. Dr. William Fenical, professor of Oceanography at Scripps, is developing a way for marine microorganisms to offer new antitumor drugs for the next century. [1] The new anticancer drugs from the UCSD cancer institute are, in fact, produced by microorganisms found in the deepest parts of the ocean. [1]

The potential for biological cures to human diseases exist within the ocean deep. If offshore oil drilling, mineral extraction and anthropogenic debris continue to threaten the existence of deep-sea marine ecosystems, we may never uncover the “hidden secrets” of the deep. However, if the government invests in deep-sea exploration and research and enables the development of technological advancements to explore the deep, marine scientists and researchers will uncover the true value of responsible, sustainable industrial development in the deep sea.

Photo by tsuda

Notes

[1] Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine Scripps Institute of Oceanography, UCSD. “The New Frontier in Biomedicine”. Scripps Multimedia Group.

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2 responses to “IN TOO DEEP? PROTECTING DEEP-SEA MARINE ECOSYSTEMS

  1. Hi! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be ok.
    I’m absolutely enjoying your blog and look forward to new updates.

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