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The threat to unexplored depths

Two recent discoveries at the bottom of the ocean have highlighted how little we really know about our planet’s least explored and most threatened ecosystem.

A turtle trapped in a fishing web, image courtesy of Wikicommons

There are very few undiscovered habitats left on our little planet, but one may be destroyed before we can even explore its uniqueness. New research from deep water surveying has exposed human waste in the deep Atlantic Ocean up to 4.5 km below the surface. The deep pelagic zone ranges from around 100 m depth to just above the sea floor, it is thought that we have only explored 1% of this area and similar to the deepest rainforests, we have no idea how much we may be losing without knowing it.

Marine biologist Bruce Robison suggests that this environment may contain more individuals and species than any other ecosystem on the planet. Robison says "A million or more undescribed species, with biological adaptations and ecological mechanisms not yet imagined, may live within the vast volume of the deep-sea water column”. Many of these organisms may have developed important adaptations to their harsh environment and understanding their biochemistry could be of great benefit to medical research. The deep ocean is also home to the most ancient form of life, Archaea which have evolved around volcanic vents and cold seeps and are thought to be key indicators of the first life on Earth.

Image courtesy of Ratha Grimes

 The human rubbish has been found up to 2000 km from land by one of the largest scientific surveys of the sea floor to date; using remotely operated submarines, the rubbish was mainly composed of plastics, glass, metal and discarded fishing nets, a large amount of clinker; coal dust from 19th century steam ships was also found, showing how long we have been polluting the ocean rubbish was found to accumulate in the highest concentrations in deep water canyons. Jonathan Copley, senior lecturer in marine ecology at the University of Southampton said "This very important research confirms what most of us who work in the deep ocean have noticed for quite some time – that human rubbish has got there before us.

These physical signs of modern pollution are damaging to the undersea flora and fauna but may just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to humanity’s effect on the deep ocean. Overfishing is beginning to have an impact as 40% of the world’s fishing grounds are below 200 m. So far the ocean has been crucial for limiting the effects of climate change; however increasing Carbon dioxide is causing ocean acidification and expansion of low-oxygen zones, which could all lead to trophic cascades affecting all forms of marine life, not only causing irreversible mass extinctions but threatening crucial ecosystem services and economic activities in the fishing industry.

Image courtesy of Sarah Scicluna

The deep ocean is fast becoming the next economic frontier, with mining and oil companies battling to extract the previously unreachable reserves, a plan to extract copper, gold and other valuable metals from an area of seabed 1,500 m down has been reached between a Canadian mining company and Papua New Guinea. Environmental campaigners have long argued that seabed mining will be hugely destructive and that the precise effects remain unknown. Richard Page, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace, said "Only 3% of the oceans and only 1% of international waters are protected, which makes them some of the most vulnerable places on earth - what we desperately need is a global network of ocean sanctuaries."

The World Wildlife Fund established the first deep sea marine protected areas (MPAs) around critical hydrothermal vents and is working to limit damaging fishing practices and strengthen conservation policy. While the advance of undersea technology has allowed us to discover more about this stunning ecosystem in order to protect it; it has also allowed us to exploit and damage it as we have to all other habitats on Earth.

By Alex Caldwell

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