Cape Town - Imagine the outcry if giant privately owned bulldozers trundled continuously across the landscape of the Kruger National Park and other natural areas, killing all the game and destroying all the plants as they ripped up everything in their path over hundreds of kilometres.
Yet the exact equivalent of that is happening continuously in the deep international oceans of the world as trawlers plough the seabed.
To make matters worse, the deep-sea area being destroyed almost certainly contains thousands of species that are as yet unknown to science and which hold potentially huge benefits for humankind, as well as having important – possibly critical – roles in the maintenance of these ocean ecosystems.
Now, scientists and economists want a new system of governance and funding for deep-sea marine reserves and the restoration of ecosystems damaged by commercial interests.
A call for this was made in an editorial comment in this week’s issue of the prestigious scientific journal Nature, signed by researchers from the US, UK, France, Germany, Portugal and Italy. The lead author is Professor Edward B Barbier, professor of economics at the University of Wyoming in the US.
They point out that it is estimated that more than 1 million square kilometres of the sea below a depth of 200m are being ploughed by trawlers, and that the next decade will see expansion of oil, gas and mineral extraction into deeper and deeper waters.
“At risk are ecosystems that contribute to the health and productivity of the ocean, that challenge our ideas of the extremes at which life can exist, such as hydrothermal vents, and that are habitats and nurseries for fisheries – seamounts, for example.
“Our knowledge of deep-ocean biodiversity only hints at thousands of undiscovered organisms and their benefits. Some threatened species, such as cold-water corals, have lifespans of hundreds or even thousands of years. Habitats, including rock concretions called manganese nodule beds, can take millennia to form.
“We call for formal governance structures and funds to be put in place by 2020 to create networks of deep-sea reserves that maintain and restore biodiversity and function in this vast and important biome.”
They argue that, to support such efforts, a global strategy must be framed under the aegis of national governments and an international body for areas that lie beyond national jurisdictions.
Deep-sea restoration experiments have begun, and cold-water corals from the north-eastern Atlantic Ocean grow in laboratories. The experimental reintroduction of these corals to the sea floor has proved successful, with 76 percent surviving after three years, the authors say.
Efforts are ongoing in the UK to develop “coralbots” – swarms of autonomous undersea vehicles to transplant and monitor coral fragments in the deep sea to overcome fishing damage.
But the potential effectiveness of large-scale restoration is unknown and the precedents are not promising, they add – after almost four decades of restoration, freshwater and coastal ecosystems still do not recover their full biodiversity and functionality.
“Repairing damage to, and enhancing recovery of, deep-sea ecosystems will be more expensive than for shallow ones by two to three orders of magnitude.”
They say it could cost as much as $75-million (R831m) to restore one hectare of trawled seabed at the Darwin Mounds hummocks that are inhabited by corals at a depth of 1km in the Rockall Trough of the north-eastern Atlantic.
But, they say, it’s a price many feel is worth paying because, in addition to the benefits of oil, gas, mineral and biomedical resources, deep-sea ecosystems have other important functions, including roles in gas and climate regulation, and waste absorption and detoxification.
And studies in Ireland, the autonomous Portuguese islands of the Azores and Scotland have revealed that the public is willing to pay a certain amount for deep-sea biodiversity conservation and developing new medicinal products from this area.
However, a key feature of a global strategy for protecting and restoring the deep-sea should be the “polluter pays” principle, they argue.
“That is, stakeholders who are most responsible for damages should fund deep-sea ecosystem reserves, research and restoration.
“These entities are likely to include mining, oil and gas, transportation and fishing companies.”
Because a universal authority to consider ecosystem protection, costs and benefits in international waters does not yet exist, adding a biodiversity-conservation agreement to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) is under discussion, with a decision due late next year. Such a development is an essential first step for protecting the deep sea, the authors suggest.
They want a restoration fund of about $30m a year to be established to implement the updated Unclos agreement.
It should start immediately after the 2015 decision and comprise contributions from the national or private companies involved in mining, fishing, transportation and other commercial activities harmful to sea-floor ecosystems.
National governments, the international community and commercial interests should agree by next year on mechanisms to best finance deep-sea protection and restoration, and, by 2020, co-operate on implementing the fund, they conclude.
“If we wish to continue to enjoy the benefits of deep-sea ecosystems, it’s essential that we find ways to finance deep-sea research, reserves and restoration.” - Sunday Argus