Te Ipukarea Society: Mysteries of the deep

Saturday September 12, 2020 Written by Te Ipukarea Society Published in Editorials
A deep-sea octopus, dubbed Casper because of its white complexion. Unknown to humanity until recently, it is just one example of the complex biodiversity of the deep seas. Credit Image: Sciencemag.org/20091108 A deep-sea octopus, dubbed Casper because of its white complexion. Unknown to humanity until recently, it is just one example of the complex biodiversity of the deep seas. Credit Image: Sciencemag.org/20091108

OPINION: A moratorium on Deep Seabed Mining will empower the Pacific and build the capacity of island nations to protect coastal waters and conserve the vital biodiversity of the deep ocean systems.

In 2007, in a deep-water canyon off the coast of California, a research team from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, discovered a deep-sea white octopus clinging to the rocky wall around 1500 meters deep.

The team witnessed, perhaps for the first time, that the octopus was brooding a batch of eggs. The discovery became even more significant when the team returned to the same place for the following three years in a row and found that the same octopus was brooding the same batch of eggs, for a total of four and a half years.

The rare sighting has since been made in other parts of the world and is now widely believed to be the longest gestation period of any known species on the planet. Casper, as this species of deep-sea octopus has been dubbed, is just one recent discovery in a continually expanding network of deep-sea biodiversity; a network that extends beyond our current understanding.

It is not uncommon for deep-sea research dives to return ashore with several species that have never been recorded by humankind. However, the glimmer of precious minerals on the seabed caught our eye long before we could see the life swarming across its surface or swimming through its silent, pressured darkness.

Historic misconceptions

The first recorded discovery of minerals on the deep seabed was made by the HMS Challenger between the years 1873-1876. Among the mud and slime that they pulled off of the seabed, several fathoms beneath their ship, they found “black sphere-shaped nodules.” They later discovered that these nodules contained Manganese and other minerals that were already valuable in a developing technological world. The concept of mining the seabed, thousands of kilometres from any shore, and anywhere from 1000 – 6000 metres deep, began to shape a large part of the development of the Law of the Sea in the 1960s and 1970s. The scientific understanding at the time was that these nodules were resting on top of clay in a virtually lifeless, dark abyss and that little else in the deep ocean held any economic value.  We now know that this could not be further from the truth.

The non-extractive value of the deep oceans

These early assumptions about deep seabed mining ignored the same facts that we continue to ignore today - that the deep seas are full of life. Man has only recently been able to venture back to the deep, back to the places where some believe life began. The hydrothermal vents of the Pacific Ocean are believed to contain unknown quantities of genetic resource potential. The system of hydrothermal vents, or underwater volcanoes, is just one example of the “non-extractive value” of the deep oceans. Value that enriches lives through discovery of human heritage and inspires future generations to cherish, study and preserve rather than destroy and exploit.

The areas currently targeted for deep sea mining activities are hydrothermal vents, the abyssal plain, and seamounts. All of these are known to support a complex, unique and diverse system of marine organisms - some of which are not found anywhere else on Earth. The deep sea is immensely important to regulating our entire ocean’s biodiversity and its remoteness makes it poorly understood and vulnerable to unregulated exploitation. In the face of climate change, the international community is currently developing treaties that aim to conserve more of the high seas’ declining biodiversity – does Deep Seabed Mining fit into this objective?

The decade 2021-2030 has been designated by the United Nations (UN) as The Decade of Ocean Science. According to the International Oceanographic Commission of the UN, this can provide time to study the oceans and “generate the global ocean science needed to support the sustainable development of our shared ocean.” A 10-year moratorium on mining, in both international and national waters, is a necessary early step towards a more cautious, more informed approach to management of the deep sea.

As Te Ipukarea Society has argued before, along with many other voices, a moratorium on Deep Seabed Mining empowers the Pacific and builds the capacity of island nations to protect coastal waters and conserve the vital biodiversity of the deep ocean systems.

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