As prospectors increase their efforts to exploit the resources locked up at the bottom of the oceans, scientists and legislators continue to lag behind, a panel of experts has warned.
Ocean mining has become a hot topic recently, with increasing focus on the potential of undersea minerals (see: Tighten regulations on deep-sea mining).
In a new paper in PLoS One the team behind the Census of Marine Life’s deep sea project present their “semi-quantitative” review of human impact on the world’s least explored region (see Nature’s recent feature for more on the census: Out of the blue).
From simply throwing waste over the side of ships, humanity has advanced to actively exploiting the deep sea. This exploitation is now “the most important human-related activity that affects the deep-sea ecosystem”, says the paper from Eva Ramirez-Llodra, of the Institute of Marine Science in Barcelona, and her colleagues.
In future, even exploitation will pale in comparison to climate change though, they suggest: “During the remainder of the current century, we predict that the major impact in the deep sea will be climate change, affecting the oceans globally through direct effects on the habitat and fauna as well as through synergies with other human activities.”
The team identifies four habitats at exceptionally high risk from human activities. Sedimentary upper slope communities will be hit by a range of problems, from climate change driven ocean acidification to deep sea fishing. These factors will also hurt cold-water corals.
Fishing will also hit canyon communities, as will accumulation of litter and pollution. Finally, seamounts will also be changed by altered circulation and stratification, again driven by climate change, as well as fishing activity.
And while scientists are generally beholden to the slow pace of funding cycles, companies motivated by an unexploited resource can move fast.
“One of the main problems that continue to cause concern is that the fastest movers in the deep sea are those who wish to use it as a service provider. Lagging behind somewhat are the scientists, managers and legislators,” states the paper.
Image: the Trieste, the record holder for manned deep dives, prepares to descend into the Mariana Trench in 1959 / US Navy photo