Oceans unveil how little is known

Date: August 24, 2005

The latest discovery of underwater life in abundance – coral forests at 1000 metres deep – was released today in Vienna at a conference (1) of marine biologists, underlining recent calls to take a time-out on trawl fishing of the ocean bottom until scientists can accurately assess the real richness of deep sea life and its resources. Scientists outlined new research from the US Government National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Ocean Exploration 2002 and 2004 Gulf of Alaska Seamount Expeditions. Marine ecologists collected and described a new species of deep sea fan (2), or gorgonian, called a “bamboo coral” from a dozen mountains in the sea between Santa Barbara, California and Kodiak, Alaska, USA, suggesting the animal occurs on peaks throughout the Pacific Ocean.

The discovery comes on the back of calls from scientists, governments and NGOs to put in place a United Nations moratorium on high seas bottom trawling (HSBT) until a comprehensive understanding of the impact of fishing practices on the high seas can be reached, and sustainable management practices can be enforced. “This coral discovery is the equivalent of finding a new species of oak tree, then realizing that you are practically surrounded by a forest teeming with life,” said Peter Etnoyer, a marine ecologist with Aquanautix, Los Angeles based consultancy. “Deep corals are diverse and beautiful, like their tropical cousins, and they are severely threatened by the destructive impact of deep sea bottom fishing trawlers.” “These results highlight how limited our current knowledge is about seamount habitats ” said Malcolm Clark, a Principal Investigator with the Census of Marine Life Program on Seamounts (CenSeam). “Up to today we’ve only been looking through a very narrow window at the seamounts’ true diversity,” said Clark. During the past decade, scientists have developed dozens of promising products from marine organisms, including a cancer therapy made from algae, a painkiller taken from the venom in cone snails, antibiotics from deep water seabed dwelling bacteria, and found potential treatments for human diseases including arthritis, Alzheimer’s and immune systems deficiencies. To capture one or two target commercial fish species, deep-sea bottom trawl fishing vessels drag huge nets armed with steel plates and heavy rollers across the seabed, plowing up and pulverizing everything in their path. In the process, thousands of tons of coral are hauled up only to be thrown back dead or dying, along with huge quantities of unwanted bycatch. In a matter of a few weeks or months, bottom trawl fishing can destroy what took many thousands of years to create. In February 2004, over 1,100 scientists from around the world called for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling (HSBT) to protect deep-sea habitats in international waters and the two-thirds of the world’s oceans which lie beyond national jurisdictions. Theoretically, such a moratorium should be easy to bring about. Of more than three million fishing vessels in operation around the world, only 100-200 are bottom-trawling on the high seas on a full-time, year-round equivalent basis. And virtually all reported HSBT is conducted by the fleets of just 11 nations, of which the most prominent is Spain. Spain and many other HSBT countries have fiercely resisted any attempts to impose international regulation on their fishing. In November this year, the United Nations General Assembly will, for the second year in a row, discuss a moratorium proposal. Although a proposal last year failed because of opposition from Spain, the EU and their allies, support for a moratorium on the high seas is building around the world, and environmentalists and scientists are determined to continue pushing for victory until the deep seas in international waters, beyond national jurisdiction, are adequately protected. “Until now the European Union has been paralyzed by Spain and its fleet of 50 or so trawlers working the high seas. Austria, as the next in line for presidency of the EU, has a historical opportunity to lead the EU and the world in putting high seas protection ahead of an industry prepared to destroy the deep seas in the hunt for the last fish,” said Matthew Gianni, political advisor to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.

Contact: Susan Cavanagh +439981395917 (until 26th August then +31621296910)

Notes to editors: (1) The 40th Annual European Marine Biology Symposium held in Vienna this year was organized under the direction of Professor Jorg Ott, Institute of Ecology and Conservation Biology, University of Vienna, Austria. (2) The new coral called, for now, Isidella species novum, has a jointed skeleton of dense calcite, or bone, very similar to the human spine. The bony axis of the skeleton has rings like a tree, and can be used to age corals (Pacific colonies are hundreds of years old) and to study events such as deep ocean climate change. They are also bioluminsecent, glowing green and blue in cold water at 4 deg C. Isidella’s relative, Keratoisis sp., grows more than 3m tall and as deep as 4200m.

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