Mysterious depths of the high seas

30 July 2010 | News story

The open oceans and deep seas represent 95% of the global biosphere. They play an important role in regulating the Earth’s climate and are home to a major part of the world’s biodiversity, containing some of the most productive ecosystems, vast natural resources, unique habitats and unknown species.

However, mounting pressures from intensifying human use, climate change and ocean acidification threaten to undermine these ecosystems’ biodiversity, balance and resilience.

Due to their remoteness and difficulty of exploration, the open oceans and deep seas are the least known and least protected places on the planet. Currently, only about 5% has been explored, mostly near coastal areas where the continental shelf drops off abruptly into the deep sea. Open oceans and deep seas often fall outside national jurisdiction and so future conservation efforts in these areas depend on international cooperation and coordination.

With support from the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN), IUCN’s Global Marine Programme is coordinating the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative (GOBI), an international partnership providing the scientific basis for conserving the unique biological diversity in the deep seas and open oceans. GOBI helps countries, as well as regional and global organizations to identify ecologically-significant areas in the oceans, with an initial focus on areas beyond national jurisdiction. It also supports countries in their efforts to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss and establish a representative network of marine protected areas. And all this based on the latest science.

“One of the biggest challenges when working with open oceans and deep seas is the paucity of data in these regions,” says Carole Durussel, IUCN’s GOBI Project Officer. “Due to the high costs and logistical difficulty for their exploration, the majority of the available ocean data comes from areas closest to shore. Most of the poorly-sampled marine areas are found in the southern hemisphere and in lower and higher latitude regions. It is therefore very important to make the best use of the scientific data and other information, by making it easily available, and by addressing data gaps. It is also important to facilitate the international coordination of future scientific research efforts, including focused regional work.”

GOBI’s work is based on seven scientific criteria to identify ecologically or biologically significant areas in the global marine realm, which were adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2008. These include, for example, areas containing exceptionally high biological diversity or productivity, unique or rare areas, as well as areas of particular importance for the survival and recovery of threatened or declining species.

In its initial phase, GOBI developed practical illustrations relating to species, habitats and oceanographic features for these criteria.

“For example, did you know that female northern elephant seals undertake two foraging migrations at sea each year and spend most of their time on the high seas (that is in areas beyond national jurisdiction)? These migrations to highly productive areas are critical to their survival as they need to build fat reserves to survive the fasting months on land giving birth, nourishing their pup and breeding. With the help of tagging devices placed on the back of marine species such as elephant seals, sea turtles or seabirds, it is possible to track their distribution in space and time. Adding this data to a species’ biological information can help explain why these marine species use a particular area. Satellites can also be useful in detecting physical features such as eddies or upwelling areas, which promote biological productivity or areas of extreme temperature differences that often determine a species’ distribution,” explains Carole.

Using the seven categories to identify specific ocean areas that require enhanced protection can help to achieve a variety of conservation and management objectives. However, much scientific work still needs to be done to make this possible and this is what GOBI is working towards.

“Our next step is to apply multiple criteria analyses to arrive at options for coherent representative networks of protected areas using ecologically and biologically significant areas on the high seas,” says Patricio Bernal, GOBI Project Coordinator.

Significant recommendations came out of the May’s meeting of the scientific advisory body of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nairobi. They will need to be adopted at the tenth Conference of Parties taking place in Nagoya, Japan, in October 2010.

“One of the key recommendations was the proposal to outline a process for creating and maintaining a global inventory of ecologically or biologically significant marine areas beyond national jurisdiction under the umbrella of the Convention on Biological Diversity, with the help of relevant organizations and the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative”, says Patricio. “If adopted at the Conference of Parties in October, considerable progress could be made towards identifying ecologically important marine areas and GOBI would continue to be recognised as an important scientific partner”.

The meeting also made recommendations to encourage cooperation between governments and organizations to identify and protect ecologically and biologically significant marine areas beyond national jurisdiction and to assess and map the distribution and abundance of marine species. The impacts of climate change, ocean acidification, ocean fertilisation, underwater noise as well as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing on marine and coastal biodiversity were also discussed. This gives GOBI plenty of opportunities to expand and consolidate its work in the future.

For more information, please contact:
Patricio Bernal, GOBI Project Coordinator
Carole Durussel, GOBI Project Officer, GIS