Focus on: Deep Sea

For the past year, Hub’s deep-sea researchers have been forced to be creative with their time and explore different opportunities for research and collaboration due to the restrictions posed by the global pandemic.

Many research cruises around the world were cancelled, and the Hub’s own upcoming research cruise had to be postponed. But now there is hope: the team is planning a deep-sea research cruise to the South Atlantic, in early 2022 – pandemic allowing. The team will be studying the deep-sea communities and habitats found both in international waters and the South African deep sea.

“This is an extremely exciting opportunity, as relatively little is known about deeper waters in the South Atlantic, and it is the first time anyone will be visiting some of South Africa’s deep-water ecosystems. We will be exploring at depths of more than 2000 meters, looking at flat, soft, sandy areas that are home to deep-sea anemones and sea cucumbers, as well as steep seamounts that we expect to host cold water corals”, Hub researcher and deep-sea ecologist Kirsty McQuaid says.

Map of deep-sea habitats in the making

Within the deep-sea programme, the Hub researchers are working across a broad range of topics – from investigating the potential biomedical properties of deep-sea creatures and exploring deep-sea communities using underwater cameras, to mapping different marine habitats and investigating the impacts of a changing climate on cold-water corals. While the deep-sea researchers work across a range of focus areas, they share a common goal – to inform the management of human activities in the deep sea.

One of the key focus areas for the Hub’s deep-sea researchers is to bring together experts in habitat mapping from all South Atlantic bordering nations, to produce a map of deep-sea habitats across the entire region.

“This highly collaborative approach is allowing us to strengthen existing relationships, create new partnerships, and most importantly, establish a regional group of habitat mappers who are all stakeholders in the management of activities in the high seas. We hope that this group of experts, brought together under the One Ocean Hub, will be able to work together to support spatial planning in international waters in the South Atlantic”.

From mapping to capacity development

A key challenge in deep-sea research is describing and understanding ecosystems before they are altered by human activities.

“In general, we still know very little about the different animals found in deep-sea systems, how they function, and what services they provide. One of the reasons for this is because the deep sea covers such a large area, but there are also challenges with sampling deep-sea environments: it is time-consuming, expensive, and requires specialised equipment.”

Kirsty says

The deep-sea researchers are trying to build a picture of the deep-sea environments in the South Atlantic to support better management of activities taking place in this region. They are sampling the deep-sea creatures so that they can describe the communities present. They are also exploring potential services they may provide like biomedical solutions and carbon sequestration, and testing their responses to changing conditions that may result from climate change.

“We are also building models to predict and map the locations of different deep-sea habitats and ecosystem services, to support spatial management of activities, including future activities like seabed mining.”

Kirsty continues

Finally, an important component of the work is capacity development in deep-sea research. As well as carrying out training courses on specific topics, the researchers are working to identify the key challenges and obstacles for deep-sea researchers in South Africa, and what enablers may support capacity development.

What’s new in deep-sea governance?

The key development in legislation at the present moment that affects the deep-sea is to do with a new legal instrument that is being negotiated on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (i.e. in international waters), called the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) negotiations. Work on this new international agreement formally began in 2015, following a United Nations resolution, and the first Intergovernmental Conference to facilitate discussion was held in 2018. The negotiations are now in the final stages. Key components of the new treaty discussed included Environmental Impact Assessment, marine genetic resources, area based management tools and capacity building and technology transfer. For more information about the negotiations, as well as insight into the deep-sea science community’s contributions to the process, see here.

In addition, there is currently much debate around new legislation being developed for seabed mining. Several minerals of interest are being targeted for mining in international waters, and legislation is under development to allow the exploitation of these deposits for commercial purposes. This is a highly controversial and political topic that Hub researchers continue to follow. Watch this webinar and this webinar to find out more.

Save the date

Mandy Lombard is involved in organising a Marine Spatial Planning Symposium from 9-10 March 2021. The symposium is focused on shared visions for marine planning, with insights From Israel, South Africa and the UK, and will include a multi-disciplinary round table discussion. Click here to register.

Save the date

The triannual Deep Sea Biology Symposium will be held in Brest, France, in September. Although it is hoped this event will go ahead in-person, there is likely to be a virtual component as well. This conference is heavily scientific, but does include sessions on deep ocean stewardship. Click here to register.

More information and highlights

Several Hub deep-sea researchers are involved in a Proposed UN Ocean Decade Programme for deep-sea biological research, led by the Hub’s Prof Kerry Howell. Information on the proposed Programme can be found in two recent journal articles:

“A Decade to Study Deep-Sea Life”

“A Blueprint for an Inclusive, Global Deep-Sea Ocean Decade Field Program”

Last year’s Hub’s UN World Oceans Week event ‘Wonders of the Deep’ captures imagery and stories of some of the incredible deep-sea environments, as well as key challenges and barriers deep-sea scientists face, from both developed and developing nations.

This video of a previous research cruise by the University of Plymouth (in partnership with Oxford University, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the British Geological Survey) illustrates some of the types of sampling the deep-sea researchers will be carrying out on the Hub cruise.

For something longer, click here to watch Prof Kerry Sink’s TedTalk on South Africa’s offshore environments.

Finally, the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI) is a global network of deep-sea experts which integrates knowledge from different disciplines to advise on the management of deep-sea resources. DOSI produces policy briefs on a range of topics, and also has a YouTube channel.

Photo: Photo: 2021 Kerry Howell, University of Plymouth, Marine Institute Irelance, Eurofleets 2