09/21/2015 09:32 am ET | Updated Sep 21, 2016

Compromising the Ecology of the Deep

Lophelia II: Reefs, Rigs, and Wrecks 2009 Expediti

Many of us know that most of planet Earth is covered with ocean -- about 70 percent. We probably should have been named planet Ocean. But how many know that most of our planet is covered with deep ocean? That ocean waters deeper than 200 meters (656 feet) cover about two-thirds of the surface of the planet and more than 95 percent of the habitable volume? Most of this vast area is unexplored. We know less about the bottom of the ocean than we do about the surface of the moon, and as a result, most of the biological species in the ocean remain undiscovered.

This has not prevented us humans from exploiting resources in the ocean, however. We are fishing increasingly deeper, with bottom trawls and long lines that upend and destroy life on the sea floor. Slow-growing deep-sea fishes are often more than 100 years old and their removal is more like permanent extraction (serial mining) than fishing a replaceable resource. Our oil and gas are being extracted from deeper and deeper waters. Deep oil rigs that can reach 2000-3000 meters (6,500-9,800 feet) are the new normal -- though not without hazard, as we have learned from the Deepwater Horizon accident and other blowouts. Industry is now preparing to extract minerals from a host of different deep-sea ecosystems -- nickel, cobalt, copper, zinc, and rare earth elements from nodules in the abyss and seamounts, and gold, silver, lead, zinc, and copper from sulfides at hydrothermal vents.

Ironically, it is our advanced economies and green lifestyles, filled with electronics, cell phones, hybrid-car batteries, solar cells, and wind turbines that create demand for the minerals mentioned above, driving interest in mining the deep sea. At the same time, we dump a tremendous amount of waste into the deep sea -- both intentionally and not -- from sewage and plastics to downed ships and hazardous chemicals. All of these activities compromise the ecology of the deep, a setting that now functions as a wild frontier, often with limited environmental oversight and major governance gaps.

What does this mean and why should we care? Scientists are slowly coming to realize that the deep ocean provides many key services for this planet, beyond the commodities that can be sold. The deep ocean absorbs much of the excess heat and rising carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, slowing the impacts of climate change on land, but introducing new impacts in the ocean. Ocean warming, acidification and deoxygenation are all consequences. Small fish species in the deep ocean fuel many of our commercial fisheries, but these may be at peril from changing climate. The genetic diversity of the deep is a living library that we will depend on in the future for pharmaceuticals, industrial agents, and the raw potential for adaptation to changing conditions. We are continually discovering new ecosystems and new ways that animals use them -- for example, deep sites of methane emission provide nursery habitats for some skates, rays, sharks and possibly bony fishes. Almost certainly there are many other functions of the deep that we have yet to discover, but that future generations will depend on.

That is why we must ensure that UN Sustainable Development Goal 14, which addresses sustainable use of the oceans, seas, and marine resources, penetrates into deep waters. As the most powerful species on the planet, and one that is rapidly reshaping the environment, it is our responsibility to maintain the health of the ocean; a key element is stewardship of the deep ocean. This effort requires technology advancement, expertise in law, policy, and the input of scientists, economists, regulators, and industry to create viable decision-making tools and environmental regulations that acknowledge the special features of the deep ocean.

The Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative is a global entity devoted to promoting informed environmental management of the deep sea, raising awareness and building capacity internationally to achieve stewardship actions. Protecting the deep ocean will need to involve a greater commitment to research and the institution of protected areas that are insulated from growing industrialization of the deep.

Individually, we all can become stewards of the deep ocean by rethinking our consumption patterns. Avoiding the purchase of deep-sea fishes such as orange roughy, oreos, or Patagonian toothfish (also known as Chilean seabass) at the market, encouraging recycling of electronics with metals and rare earth elements, limiting use of plastics, and even limiting our carbon emissions are all actions that can help preserve the functions of the largest habitats on earth.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 14.

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