Hamburg, Germany, 12 November 2002
WWF, the conservation organization, urges governments to halt the current unregulated exploitation leading to the inevitable disturbance and decline of unique oases of the ocean called seamounts.
Lack of data on the rapidly increasing human impacts on offshore seamounts in the North East Atlantic threatens to make this important and diverse habitat slip off the European governments priority list for conservation. But there is enough evidence of the importance of seamounts to oceanic fisheries and biodiversity, as well as of the fragility of the ecosystems they host, to motivate their immediate protection and adequate management. Today, WWF along with several partners, launch the OASIS project (Oceanic Seamounts: an Integrated Study), funded by the European Commission. OASIS will study the function, biodiversity and ecology of two chosen North East Atlantic seamounts in EU waters, as well as their contribution to the ecology of the surrounding ocean.
"This is the first European seamount study integrating physical, biogeochemical and biological research and aiming directly at the application of scientific results on the management of these unique oceanic ecosystems, said Bernd Christiansen, scientific coordinator of OASIS.
Never breaking the surface of the ocean, offshore seamounts are unknown to most people. Seamounts are productive oases in the ocean, hosting dense aggregations of deep-sea fishes, such as the much sought-after but vulnerable orange roughy. As fish catches dwindle in shallow waters, this wealth makes them an increasingly attractive target for the escalating offshore deep sea fishing industry, in the North East Atlantic and world-wide. But management of deep-sea fish stocks is in its infancy and attempts to regulate deep-sea fisheries are insufficient. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) has cautioned against the overfishing of stocks by introducing drastic catch reductions and placing a temporary ban on the use of bottom-trawling gear in sensitive deep sea areas.
Last year, the forum dealing with biodiversity issues at OSPAR (the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North East Atlantic) placed seamounts on its priority list of threatened species and habitats of regional concern, in order to develop measures for their conservation. However, scientists from ICES now recommend OSPAR withdraws seamounts from this list, due to lack of scientific data on actual threats.
WWF calls on OSPAR to apply the precautionary principle and include seamounts in the OSPAR list of habitats needing urgent special protection measures. WWF also urges the European Union to prevent unregulated deep sea fishing on seamounts by enforcing effective measures, until further data has been collected on the impact of trawling and other fishing methods on these sensitive and important ocean features.
Lack of data is not reason enough to exclude seamounts from the OSPAR priority list, said Stephan Lutter, Director of WWFs North East Atlantic Programme. "We cannot afford to wait for enough scientific evidence to accumulate when many seamounts already today are visited by fishing vessels using destructive fishing methods that rapidly can deplete commercially important fish species and destroy seamount habitats for ever.
WWF believes that the European Union and OSPAR signatory countries should follow the good example of Australia, New Zealand and Canada, who recently took the first steps towards protecting seamounts in their offshore waters, despite little available data evidencing human impact.
"To restore the balance in the oceans, there is an urgent need to create marine protected areas for offshore, as well as coastal, marine environments. Governments must take action now to regulate human activities and prevent further loss of vital marine resources and the relatively unknown but fragile deep sea heritage," said Simon Cripps, Director of WWFs international Endangered Seas Programme.
For further information:
Stephan Lutter, North-East Atlantic Programme, WWF International. Tel: +49 421 654 46 22.
Dr. Bernd Christiansen, University of Hamburg. Tel: +49 40 428 38 66 70.
Notes to editors:
Seamounts are underwater offshore mountains at least 1,000 metres high, whose summits do not break the surface. Rising from the abyssal plains adjacent to volcanic ridges in all oceans, hundreds of thousands of seamounts are estimated world-wide. Special current conditions at and around seamounts trap myriads of small organisms living in the open ocean, creating the basis for a rich abundance of fish and invertebrates,. This in turn makes the waters an attractive breeding and feeding ground for oceanic fish, which visit the seamount area in vast numbers. Seamounts are also thought to act as stepping stones for the spreading of oceanic and continental shelf species otherwise prevented by large distances of deep open ocean.
Seamount habitats are very sensitive to the physical impact of trawls being dragged along their sides, and to the removal of key species by commercial fisheries. Many species at seamounts grow very slowly and some reproduce first at the age of thirty years or more. This slow growth and the fact that seamounts are isolated from each other and extend only over small areas, mean that seamount habitats and animal populations recover from disturbances only over long time periods, by sporadic recolonization from nearby seamounts and continental shelf areas. Where this is not possible, excessive removal of seamount species may lead to their local extinction.
An endemic species is unique to one place on Earth.
*The partners in the OASIS project are:
University of Hamburg, Germany;
National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland;
University of the Azores, Portugal;
University of Liverpool, UK;
Universidad de Las Palma de Gran Canaria, Spain;
University of Rostock, Germany;
Southampton Oceanography Centre, UK;
WWF North-East Atlantic Programme; and
Friedrich-Alexander University, Erlangen, Germany.
** For more information on the ICES advice, please consult:
ICES ACFM (2000): Answer to EC request for advice on Deep Sea Fisheries Management.
ICES (2001): Answer to Special Request on the Management of Deep-water Species. Cooperative Research Report No. 246.
ICES Article: Is time running out for deepsea fish?
OSPAR Biodiversity Committee (BDC), Summary Record of the 2001 Meeting
OASIS Newsletter No. 1
WWF: Galicia Bank (SP) - a potential offshore marine protected area
WWF: Banco Gorringe (P) - a potential offshore marine protected area