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Unexplored depths

by Thilo Maack


Oceans and seas matter in our planet’s environmental balance, but human interference is causing disruptions that scientists do not fully understand yet. Environmentalists demand a multilateral set of rules to protect the high seas, as Thilo Maack from Greenpeace told Hans Dembowski of D+C/E+Z in an interview. Interview with Thilo Maack

What are environmentalists’ concerns re­garding the high seas?
There are several. One, for instance, is the destruction brought about by fishing nets that touch the ocean floor. On average, the high seas are 3.5 kilometres deep, but fishing nets today scrub over seamounts 1.5 to two kilometres below sea level, tearing away everything in their path and destroying unique ecosystems, the biological diversity and complexity of which we do not even understand so far. Moreover, species are being fished that have hardly been researched either, so no one can tell how long it will take them to regenerate or at what point overfishing sets in.

What other concerns do you have?
Oil contamination is another. Exploiting hydrocarbons from great depths is very risky, as became strikingly evident after BP’s Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. All over the world, there are several thousand oil rigs, and some of them use out-dated technology. Many are not up to environmental standards. A catastrophe of the Deepwater Horizon sort could happen any time off the West African coast and elsewhere. Another issue is that we do not know what the mining of precious metal means for deep sea ecosystems. Manganese, for instance, is produced down there, because the electronics industry needs this raw material. Yet another issue is global warming which will have an impact on the oceans, and, once more, that impact is not fully understood yet. It is obvious, however, that the conditions of our oceans will change dramatically in the next few decades due to higher temperatures, rising sea levels and acidification, to name only three aspects.

Will environmental damage way out at sea have an impact on people?
Oh yes, certainly. Just consider that maritime algae generate about half of the oxygen in the air. We daily learn of more horrors concerning acidification, dwindling fish stocks, garbage and so on. There is absolutely no doubt that we are facing a crisis of historical dimensions. Humankind has never seen anything like this before. It is equally obvious that people in developing countries will be most affected. Poor communities are more dependent on the natural resources they find in their surroundings than wealthy people are. The poor, moreover, are especially vulnerable in situations of crisis.

What kind of ecosystem is particularly interesting?
Well, researchers still cannot answer a lot of highly relevant questions. This is perhaps particularly striking in the case of hydrothermal vents, so called black and white smokers, at the bottom of the ocean floor. Around them, we find very special ecosystems with rare species, and we do not even know how those species get there. Smokers are only active for a few decades. However, we also know that black smokers tend to be close to underground ores. So mining metals down there may have a devastating impact on the ecological balance.

As you say, biodiversity and the impacts on the ecological balance are under-researched. Couldn’t the problems you point out turn out to be far less dramatic than you suggest today?
Well, it is true that we do not understand every ecosystem and every environmental interaction, but we do know that everything is interrelated in one way or another. An oil spill at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico means that we find dead dolphins on far away shores. We need to know more. If an environmental impact assessment would prove that a particular activity is harmless, fine, no problem. But no environmental impact assessments are taking place. We don’t know what we are doing and what risks we are running. Perhaps some risks will turn out to be less significant than we now think. On the other hand, others are probably worse than we assume today. We need much more research to get a clear picture. And as long as we don’t know these things, the principle of precaution must apply.

Who is responsible for protecting the high seas?
In the 1990s, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – or UNCLOS for short – came into force. UNCLOS defines rules for the seas outside national jurisdiction, which begins 200 nautic miles off the coast. About 60 % of the seas and oceans are beyond any national law court’s reach, and these waters are what we call the high seas. UNCLOS, however, is evidently insufficient. One reason is that the multilateral system depends on consensus and is quite cumbersome. Important nations, such as the USA, for instance, have not even signed UNCLOS. For these reasons, Greenpeace and other environmental organisations have been demanding additional protection measures for the high seas. Unfortunately, Rio+20, the major environmental conference held in June, did not push the topic to the extent that would have been necessary.

But doesn’t the outcome document mention better protection for the high seas?
Yes, it does, but more would have been needed. Rio+20 should have launched negotiations for an implementing agreement. There is no other way to bring about mandatory environmental impact assessments for all extractive activities or rules for establishing conservation areas at sea. We lack the kind of momentum that would ensure that the high seas get on to the agenda of the UN General Assembly anytime soon. Rio+20 did not make that kind of difference. We now hope that Peter Altmaier, Germany’s federal minister for the environment, will live up to his words. He recently said that he wanted to form a kind of a coalition of the willing to promote an implementing agreement. If he manages to build and lead such an alliance, that would be quite an achievement. It is known that Angela Merkel, the chancellor, is similarly concerned about the seas. The big question, however, is whether these leaders will really prioritise the matter.

Who is causing the greatest damages at sea?
The main culprits are enterprises from advanced nations that command the relevant technology. High-tech fish trawlers come from EU countries like Spain or France. The USA, Australia, New Zealand and Japan matter a lot too. Companies from these nations similarly also play a leading role in mineral resource extraction, which is obviously quite demanding in technological terms. Even Germany has registered claims in the Pacific. An interesting aspect, however, is that all of these nations enforce environmental regulations on industries at home, so it would be only plausible for them to countenance environmental rules at sea too.