Understanding the value of the deep-sea ecosystem

Date: May 29, 2014

Guest Commentary by Jo Royle

One of the biggest challenges we have today is connecting people to the liquid planet. Not that I am saying every citizen needs to feel a connection to the blue, their life support system, but we do need a movement of engaged people.

If business leaders and politicians really understood the financial and intrinsic value of the deep-sea ecosystems there is no way that the deep-sea fisheries quota would be considered sustainable. Trashing these global treasures to convert priceless creatures into a few quid is madness.

Understanding how we can connect people to appreciate the need to conserve and build the resilience of the marine environment remains a huge opportunity. Experienced based learning is definitely the most powerful – but we have yet to devise the plan that takes Vladimir Putin down to the Antarctic.

We can go for weeks at sea without seeing another vessel, so when one comes in sight your obscured sense of space make you feel like you are on a collision course. A strange irony is that often you do have to alter course for the one vessel that appears over the horizon every few weeks.

I will never forget one windless night in the middle of the vast and remote Pacific, aboard the Plastiki, a raft with sails and no engine – impossible to maneuver quickly. A scene from Vegas came into view, a ship with so many lights it was impossible to tell which direction it was traveling. I called the captain on the radio to tell him that we would be unable to move out of his way. I asked him how much distance we needed to clear his stern by and he replied ‘two miles’. He told me he had 2,600 hooks trailing behind him. I spent hours watching him under the immense Pacific night sky. Stars lighting up another world with this ships devastating destruction running a round the clock conveyor belt of detached hunting.

Over the decade or so I spent wondering the world’s oceans I have seen capacity through technology take over. It is the size and the on board capacity of the deep-sea pelagic boat that you cannot get your head around. They can roam almost anywhere dragging gear along a landscape that we know so little about, removing any possibility for us to ever learn about these undiscovered species and ecosystems.

Unlike merchant vessels, fishing boats are not required to carry automatic vessel identification systems (AIS). There is little traceability or transparency as to who is fishing where. I hope new regulation is introduced very soon to ensure all vessels working the high seas operate with AIS.

Every day we are learning so much more about the deep blue, the new world. These new discoveries make me feel that we are the most privileged generation to live on this incredible planet – the opportunities are so exciting.

As we learn we have the responsibility to act in our roles as stewards of the planet.

We need adaptive, innovative and creative governance that responds to new discoveries. Governance needs to take a precautionary approach that supports nature and acknowledges that we don’t know, what we don’t know. The deep sea is a common treasury – it is all our responsibility. We have a big challenge in connecting people to this responsibility.


Jo Royle is a Sea Champion, with over 10 years’ experience spearheading global marine programs and sailing ventures through identifying critical marine issues, aligning senior experts and engineering solutions to reduce human impact on the sea. Transforming big visions into innovative, practical and deliverable strategies her work has resulted in the design of the UK’s first Scallop Ranching strategy, the invention of vertical gardens to adapt to sea level rise, and improved ocean content in the UK National Curriculum. In 2010 Jo co-directed and skippered the United Nations recognized Plastiki campaign to showcase solutions to the 20 billion tonnes of plastic in the sea. Jo is founder of Common Seas.

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