Historic move to protect Alps of the undersea
27 June 2008

Brest, France – WWF applauds the commitment by international governments meeting in Brest, France to protect a critical part of the vulnerable, highly productive and largely unexplored waters of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the vast underwater mountain chain in the Atlantic Ocean.

Senior officials from 15 countries and the EC meeting this week at the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment in the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR) announced their agreement on a proposal for a 300,000 square km area of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and overlaying ocean as Marine Protected Area (MPA).

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge snakes along the sea floor from the North Pole to the Southern Ocean, straddling international waters between Iceland and the Azores and creating a towering barrier between east and west with some peaks rising 3,500 metres above the ocean floor. Trenches cutting through the Ridge – the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone plunges 4,500 metres down - provide the only route for deep sea species migrating from ocean on one side of the Ridge to the other.

“The globally significant step to protect the Mid-Atlantic Ridge demonstrates unprecedented international cooperation on high seas protection in the Atlantic.” said Stephan Lutter, International Marine Policy Officer, WWF-Germany. “The Mid-Atlantic Ridge MPA will be the first ever High Seas MPA in the Atlantic Ocean, and the second one to be established globally.”

The unique and diverse ocean environment of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge makes it a haven for corals, sponges and other species living attached to rocky surfaces, as well as for whales, bony fish and sharks that feed or spawn by the shallower peaks, or use the canyons and depressions as refuge.

In the area to be protected, cool water rich in nutrients collide with warmer Gulf Stream water and provide ideal conditions for production of plankton. The area is also a meeting hot spot of northern and southern migratory species.  For example, seabirds, such as Cory’s Shearwater, breed on the Azores and undertake long distance forage trips to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge area.

The Ridge is one of the last frontiers of science where new species are discovered during research expeditions. Currently, the most pressing impact is caused by fishing fleets targeting orange roughy and other commercial deep sea species. Orange roughy is extremely vulnerable to overfishing given it reaches maturity late at 20 years old and can live to over 100. Parts of the ridge have suffered severe damage from bottom trawling.

“Establishing the Mid-Atlantic Ridge MPA will protect sensitive species and habitats from destructive fishing practices and ensure responsible management of the area.” added Stephan Lutter.

For the Mid-Atlantic MPA to come into full effect, OSPAR will now work out the management with other international authorities. Notably, the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) is the management body responsible for regulating fisheries operating within the new MPA area. WWF encourages OSPAR and NEAFC to work together to ensure responsible management of all fishing activities within and beyond the Mid-Atlantic Ridge protected area. Within the area, NEAFC has already prohibited bottom fishing in part of the Ridge to the north and around two particular seamounts on a temporary basis.

For further information:
Stephan Lutter, International Marine Policy Officer, WWF Germany
t +49 40 530200-122, m +49 162 2914425
Jessica Battle, WWF’s Global Marine Programme,
t +41 22 364 9025, m +41 78 891 4844

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* Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are long term management tools designed to safeguard habitats and species. Adequately managed, MPAs provide protection from current and potential future threats such as unsustainable fishing, CO2 storage, waste dumping, vessel casualties, mining of minerals, ocean fertilisation, bioprospecting, etc.

* Until today, only one high seas MPA existed worldwide, the Pelagos sanctuary in the Mediterranean Ligurian Sea.

* Fishes that are known to reproduce on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR) include orange roughy, alfonsinos, roundnose grenadier, redfish and other long lived and slow growing species.

* The MAR MPA is an excellent example of an offshore area which should become part of the envisaged global and regional network of MPAs, representing most of the values highlighted by OSPAR, CBD and FAO:
- It is important for declining and threatened species in the North East Atlantic
- It is representative of several biogeographic regions
- It is ecologically significant
- It hosts a region of particularly high abundance of fauna
- It hosts a high proportion of sensitive fauna
- It has a very high value for science
- It has been heavily impacted in parts by deep water fishing

* This section of the MAR has been explored by scientists from several nations co-operating in the MAR-ECO project and contributing to the global Census of Marine Life, with many cruise results and highlights presented in public domain.

* The nomination proposal for the MAR MPA was originally prepared by WWF and further developed and co-sponsored by the governments of The Netherlands, Portugal and France. The proposal has been subject to extensive scientific peer review by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea ICES and MAR-ECO scientists.

Q & A about OSPAR