We have hiked through our forests, dived our tropical coral reefs, and even climbed our highest peaks. Most of us would say that there are few places on our planet that we don’t know, but that could not be further from the truth.
The deep ocean is the largest ecosystem on the planet – it occupies over 45 per cent of our planet’s surface and more than 95 per cent of all habitable space – and yet less than five per cent of it has been explored. The little of the deep sea that we have visited has revealed an extraordinary variety of habitats, just like on land. There are canyons, plains, mountains, trenches, hydrothermal vents, methane seeps, wood falls, whale falls, brine pools, the deep pelagic and much more. Each of these habitats supports distinct communities, which, combined with the extreme conditions experienced (crushing pressures, near-freezing temperatures, no light and little food), results in creatures with novel adaptations.
It is no exaggeration to say that deep-sea species have shifted our understanding of the limits of life. Only in the deep ocean do we find blind, white yeti crabs that farm bacteria for lunch on hairy chests, species of coral that are not only beautiful, but also thousands of years old, anemone-like animals with eight-foot long tentacles, fishes that can swallow ten times their body masses, and worms that drop green bioluminescent bombs to confuse predators, to name a few.
And the deep ocean isn’t only AH-MAZING, it’s also important! The deep sea provides ecosystem services that keep our planet healthy and us alive. Its great size means that it regulates our climate by removing heat and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, cycles nutrients and chemicals, and detoxifies our oceans. It also has cultural value, with its mysterious habitats and iconic species inspiring myths, literature and movies. For centuries, there has been a proliferation of tales of sea monsters and lost cities lurking in the depths. Did you know the monster in ‘Alien’ was inspired by a much-less-terrifying tiny deep-sea amphipod species, Phronima? Movies have both subtle and not-so-subtle deep-sea references including ‘The Abyss’, ‘The Meg’, ‘Avatar’ and others. The deep ocean has also left its mark on a number of artists including Lily Simonson, and Tanya Young, showing that it can bring out the creative side in many.
And the benefits don't stop there! The deep sea is also the next frontier for the discovery of valuable resources with many insisting it is key to the Blue Economy. Submarine cables crisscross the deep-sea floor worldwide. We are fishing deeper than ever with approximately 40 per cent of fish caught in deepwater. Deep-sea oil and gas extraction has been happening for over a decade, and the generation of pharmaceuticals and medical breakthroughs from deep-sea biodiversity is also underway. Seabed mineral deposits are the latest lure with exploration happening as you read this.
However, the sustainable use of the deep ocean is complicated by the lack of understanding and regulation. We can’t effectively manage what we don’t understand or protect what we don’t know. Major knowledge gaps threaten our ability to ensure the deep sea is governed for the benefit of humankind, today and tomorrow. As we can’t even answer the most basic question, ‘What lives there?’ for most of our deep ocean, how are we to understand the ecological consequences of human disturbance in this remote and unique ecosystem?
This is exacerbated by a lack of regulation and management, which is crucial to prevent the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. We must explore this unique area of the ocean to understand it better, as well as implement and enforce regulations to allow the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
This summer, all attention has been directed at several conferences key to understanding and managing our deep oceans, including the Session of the International Seabed Authority in Jamaica, the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) Intergovernmental Conference organised by the United Nations in New York, and the Deep-Sea Biology Symposium in California. The conversations are happening and awareness is growing – now is the time for change.
Holistic management is urgently needed to prevent the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in this area of rapidly expanding human activity. Not only does the deep ocean and its inhabitants amaze and inspire us, but it also has the potential to provide solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges. If we don't balance the needs of both society and nature, there is a very real chance that we could change our oceans irreparably before we fully understand them and that would be a catastrophic loss for humanity.