This week, I was lucky enough to chat with Dr. Brian Tissot, a conservation biologist and director of the Marine Laboratory at Humboldt State University in California. Before moving to California, Brian worked in Washington, Hawaii, and Oregon as a marine biologist. Brian’s a bit of celebrity to me for his research on marine ornamental fish, those brightly colored salt-water aquarium species that have become a staple of dentist offices everywhere. And while we talked for a bit about the conservation status of these reef fish (this is my show, after all), I wanted to speak more towards an article Brian wrote a couple weeks ago on marine protected areas in the San Fransisco Bee. is unique for one key reason: These deep sea habitats are not threatened. At least not yet.
Marine habitat conservation, at least up until recently, has been almost exclusively reactive. We don’t really see a need to protect a fully-functioning ecosystem, just those that we notice are declining. And when we’re talking about marine ecosystems, those that are declining are typically those in close proximity to heavily fished areas, shipping routes, or mining locations. These activities mostly occur in coastal or shallow waters (less than 1,500 meters deep). Therefore, it makes sense that establishing marine protected areas (MPAs) in a reactive fashion would translate to a large proportion of these being set up in coastal waters. And, as Brian will tell you, many times these MPAs work.
Brian himself was instrumental in setting up an MPA in Kona, Hawaii, almost 20 years ago that closed about 35% of the shoreline to collectors of ornamental reef fish for the aquarium industry. Over the next 15 years, stocks rebounded almost 71% in the MPA and spilled over into surrounding nonprotected reefs, making both the conservationists and the collectors happy. This clear recovery, and the support of the local community, makes the Kona MPA a real dream come true for marine resource managers and conservationists. As Brian put it, “it’s like depositing money in the bank and living off the interest.” However, the MPA wouldn’t have ever been set up without the overharvesting and drastic decline of the local ornamental reef fish. And once that happens, it can still be difficult to get the necessary stakeholders on board. After all, Brian says, “no one wants to hear that the fishery is going to be closed now but in 10 years you might have more fish.” Wouldn’t an ideal situation be one where we could set up MPAs for prevention rather than recovery? Where we could proactively protect habitats that are not currently threatened, but may become so?
Which brings me back to Brian’s article. Titled “Protection of deep sea habitat off California’s coast needed now,” this call-to-conserve stresses the necessity and the benefits of proactively establishing MPAs in the deep sea. Though we may not focus much on the economical benefits of an area whose average depth is approximately 2 miles (the equivalent of stacking ten empire state buildings on top of each other), it may not be long before it starts to look more attractive to various industries.
As more and more resources are extracted from coastal waters, we’ll have to start going further offshore to harvest the same amount of fish or minerals. And with technology becoming ever more efficient and accessible, it may not be long before deep sea fishing and mining becomes not only necessary but profitable. Perhaps the biggest concern with all of this is that many biologists don’t know how this potential increase in human activity will affect these enigmatic ecosystems; we have better maps of the moon and the surface of mars than we do of the bottom of our ocean. However, the little we do know about this environment is that it’s incredibly diverse.
Species richness at the ocean floor rivals that of tropical rainforests and coral reefs, with an incredible amount of described and undescribed species of fish, crabs, echinoderms, polychaetes, and other benthic fauna being able to thrive in an ecosystem that previously seemed very devoid of life to humans. The deep sea could also help mitigate the potential effects of climate change. The ocean is a huge carbon sink, and many of the critters that live in the deep sea require calcium carbonate to build their skeletons. They extract this carbonate from the ocean, incorporating it into their own biology and eventually depositing it in the sea floor. This process can help prevent too much carbon dioxide from accumulating in the ocean.
With all of the biological treasures, social benefits, and still unknowns that the deep sea has to offer, it’s no wonder Brian and many other biologists are calling for proactive protection of this environment. And as far as restricting human activities in the deep sea goes, they’ve had some initial success. Brian’s article helped to persuade the Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council to consider closing the deep sea ecosystem off the coast of California to all human activity for the next ten years. Though this has not been adopted yet into legislation, and a final decision won’t likely be made until next year, it says something that the governing body responsible for establishing regional fishery management plans has included the provision for closing an area of the Pacific Ocean to all human activity as a consideration.
The question now becomes what can we do to help make sure similar responsible decisions are made regarding marine management? Brian says the best thing you can do is be informed and communicate your thoughts to your local officials. Social media is a great way to stay up to date the latest science and policy decisions, and it makes it easier to get in touch with our decision makers than ever before. By communicating the necessity of a responsible management plan for our ocean’s habitats, we can help ensure that the benefits they provide are around for future generations.