Giving A Voice To The High Seas

A hydrozoan jellyfish (Crossoto sp.) observed during the NOAA Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas expedition in 2016 and filmed at a depth of around 3700m. (Image Credit: NOAA Ocean Exploration & Research, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image cropped)

With the publication of the new IPCC climate report, I am once again asking myself: What can I do to mitigate the problems that our world is facing? Climate breakdown, pollution, loss of wildlife… our planet suffers from humans’ greed, selfishness and destructive exploitation. It seems almost impossible for one to have any influence or power for change. Global and political action is the only way to tackle the drastic and life-defining challenges that we and future generations will be confronted with. 

In addition to finding sustainable ways for our society, including profound changes in our lifestyles, there is still a need to protect what is left. For too long we have taken what we need for our growth and prosperity, leaving almost no untouched region on earth. However, there is a gigantic area that our actions so far have nearly escaped: the high seas

The high seas are the world we don’t see and therefore ignore: historically the source of nightmares for (seasick) explorers, the home of sea monsters, mercilessly exposed to the elements. Most of you have probably seen parts of it when flying over on your way to vacation. Or have used it indirectly as a highway for our container ships that bring our ordered and “urgently needed” goods. 

The high seas are all waters plus the seabed more than 200 nautical miles (approx. 370 km) off the coast. The coastal areas are designated as Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) within the meaning of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and are under the law of each coastal state. Beyond the 200 miles, the high seas cover over 50% of the earth’s surface! Astonishingly, protection is virtually absent and there is almost no regulation on the use of this region: it is land beyond the law. There are practically almost no rules, no regulations, no protection so far and everyone can fish, research, dump and extract as much as wanted. 

A Richness Beyond Imagination

Until the late 20th century the open ocean was good enough for whaling and crossing but otherwise labelled as hostile and holding only little life. With advanced techniques for exploring more remote (and deeper) places, we discovered hydrothermal vents, cold seeps and whale-fall ecosystems – and it became clear that the opposite is true: the high seas are home to a fascinating and incredible wealth of diversity and build the largest space for life on earth. 

Read More:

Hydrothermal Vents And Where To Find Them

How Dead Whales Form Unique Ecosystems

On the seafloor, including much of the deep sea area, underwater mountains and other unique geographic formations and habitats, you can find entire gardens of corals living together with sponges, echinoderms, octopuses, crustaceans and much more. Even more can be found in the water column: From large whales to small plankton. Fascinating creatures live here, such as siphonophores that dance around in the current on the hunt for their prey (see video below at the beginning and minute 1:40).

The California Borderland is an area of seamounts, ridges and deep basins off the southern Californian coast.

While we are on our way to explore other planets and start space tourism, undiscovered life can be found right here in our ocean. The true extent of the wildlife and species abundance in this area is still unknown, but over the past decades, it has become increasingly clear that the ocean and, to a large extent, the high seas contain one of the greatest biodiversity hotspots with much yet to be discovered.

Providing Essential Conditions for Our Life on Earth

In addition to the almost infinite variety and the fascinating mass of creatures (beautiful to look at, but unlikely to prevent a government from exploiting the seabed) the sea is our greatest backup for the climate. In the current IPCC report on the ocean (2019: Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate) it is made clear that the open ocean contains essential functions that enable our life on earth (so-called ecosystem services). The most important of these is extensive carbon sequestration (the capture and storage of CO2), which regulates our global climate and (still) keeps it in balance.

Phoenix Islands (Central Pacific)

Human activities have very likely diminished these benefits with increasing intensity over the past few decades. The IPCC report, but also other studies such as those by Benjamin S. Halpern and his team from 2019, describe with growing anxiety the ocean’s reduced oxygen content, its higher surface temperatures and the associated acidification.  This happens particularly quickly and drastically in the high seas. Other threats and impacts are probably highly overlooked, such as pollution, military actions, and fisheries among others. 

The Threats Of Rising Demand

The greed of mankind is unfortunately not diminishing either: the increasing demand for minerals and metals is leading to an increase in seabed degradation. These natural sources can be found in our everyday objects and are necessary for our modern world – for example in mobile phones or computers. Several areas for the production of these raw materials are also being explored on the high seas. According to a Reuters article, Norway could potentially start harvesting as soon as 2023 and has already started to map areas and deposits up to 700km off the coast so far.

An oil rig in the Norwegian Sea. (Image Credit: Lara Beckmann, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )

The problem is that in addition to the destruction of the biotopes on the seafloor, stored CO2 (sediment carbon) in the seabed gets released through deep-sea mining. As noted in the study from O’Leary 2020 and also supported by the results of Les Watling and Peter Auster from 2017, trawling and mining in the deep sea are particularly targeted at seamounts and other more accessible regions that host diverse marine communities that often have low ecological resilience after disturbances. However, the real impact and extent of it are still unknown. We (or better governments and companies) have to be careful not to fall into the same trap as with oil – greed will pay its price.

A Dynamic World Requires Expert Knowledge

Enric Sala and his team from 2020 modelled that we could protect up to 71% of the ocean without much loss in fish catches, but gaining much increase in biodiversity and carbon storage benefits. Certainly, the creation of protected areas is a challenging task as many marine creatures are highly mobile. It is a dynamic world with large-scale migrations and population ranges. 

In their 2020 study, Maxwell and his team propose mobile marine protected areas to adapt the protection to the challenges encountered by the various lifestyles of marine animals. Habitat corridors between larger protected areas or protected zones could change over time and space (for example the initiative TurtleWatch which tries to protect Loggerhead sea turtles from longline fishing with scientific prediction of the turtles’ location). Implementing sophisticated protection and conservation methods through advanced techniques such as animal tracking or satellite imagery can only be achieved through a collaboration between scientists and governments.

The proportion of earth’ surface and protected areas. Only fully or highly protected areas are shown (see here for the definition: https://mpatlas.org/). Data sources: (1) WDPA ; (2) Marine Protection Atlas and NOAA. (Image Credit: Lara Beckmann, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Giving Voice To The Voiceless Half Of Earth

Finally, the United Nations are considering developing an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of the high seas and 2021 is the final year of negotiations. A transnational collaboration between science and policy is needed to make the UN High Seas Treaty meaningful and successful. To ensure and achieve sustainable and meaningful protection and management of the high seas, scientists have compiled and prepared a letter that will be presented to the United Nations. The aim is a transparent and open process in which science and politics come together. As an individual, it seems almost impossible to change anything, but sometimes individual voices form a convincing shout. If we don’t use our voices to make this right, we will use up our last functioning reservoirs that have been spared from human activities for a little longer than other parts of the earth. 

It is time to end the ignorance of human existence and protect what is left of our amazing planet. If this article convinces you that the high seas deserve a voice of its own, please consider signing the open letter. The letter will be presented at the High Seas Treaty conference at the end of 2021 and will also serve as a foundation for the negotiations between scientists and the United Nations. 

You can find the open letter here: https://protectthehighseas.com


Lara Beckmann is a master’s student at the University of Stockholm in the program ‘Biodiversity & Systematics’ and is currently working on her thesis project at the University Museum of Bergen focusing on the diversity of marine polyps and jellyfish of the group Hydrozoa. You can read more of Lara’s work at Ecology for the Masses at her profile here, or follow her on Twitter here.

Further Reading & Literature

Halpern, B.S., Frazier, M., Afflerbach, J. et al. Recent pace of change in human impact on the world’s ocean. Sci Rep 9, 11609 (2019). 10.1038/s41598-019-47201-9

Sala, E., Mayorga, J., Bradley, D. et al. Protecting the global ocean for biodiversity, food and climate. Nature 592, 397–402 (2021). 10.1038/s41586-021-03371-z

Watling L., Auster P.J. (2017). Seamounts on the High Seas Should Be Managed as Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems. Frontiers in Marine Science 4 (14). 10.3389/fmars.2017.00014

O’Leary BC, Hoppit G, Townley A, Allen HL, McIntyre CJ, Roberts CM (2020). Options for managing human threats to high seas biodiversity. Ocean & Coastal Management 187. 10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2020.105110

United Nations, Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National

Marine Conservation Institute, Marine Protection Atlas (2021); https://mpatlas.org/countries/HS

IPCC (2019). Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. https://www.ipcc.ch/srocc/

Adomaitis, N. (2021). Norway eyes sea change in deep dive for metals instead of oil. Oslo (Reuters). https://www.reuters.com/article/norway-deep-sea-mining/norway-eyes-meer-change-in-deep-dive-for-metals-instead

Further glimmer of hope: The 15th meeting of COP15 Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity aims to protect at least 30% of the seas globally and sustainable use and management of the remaining 70% (https://ec.europa.eu/environment/international/protecting-biodiversity-worldwide-towards-international-agreement-cop-15_en

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