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Seamounts ARE Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems

By Vienna Saccomanno

This blog was inspired by Dr. Les Watling’s discussion immediately following the recent meeting of the UN General Assembly.

Scientists and underwater explorers have discovered submarine mountains scattered beneath the waves that harbor an incredible diversity of marine life. Known as seamounts, these extraordinary places are highly productive oases in the deep sea, and home to extremely fragile, long-lived, rare and sometimes endangered marine life. By rising up from the depths of the ocean to heights of at least 1,000 meters, seamounts increase the upwelling of nutrient rich waters resulting in a remarkable diversity of fishes and other open-ocean animals. Some seamounts function like rest stops for migratory species, such as endangered sperm whales, sea turtles, seabirds and sharks, on vast open-ocean journeys. These remote, deep areas are also a vital frontier for scientific discovery, as research expeditions continue to uncover new and rare marine species.

But people, and our far-reaching environmental impacts, are a significant threat to the marine life that inhabits seamounts all over the world. Commercial fishing, for species like orange roughy, has already resulted in appreciable deterioration of habitats and loss of marine life. Because of this, seamounts are among a number of ocean features known as vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs).

For seamounts in the high seas, efforts are underway to protect them from destructive fishing practices. A decade ago, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution that committed high seas fishing nations to prevent significant adverse impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems like seamounts. Since then, the UNGA adopted two more resolutions calling for further action and this year will review how well all of the resolutions have been implemented.

Yet, since the adoption of the first UN resolution, the management of high seas bottom fisheries has focused less on vulnerable ecosystems and more on certain groups of animals that are vulnerable to fishing gear, referred to as “VME indicator species”. These are groups such as deep-sea corals and sponges that are very long-lived, slow growing and easily removed or broken by fishing gear. And where are these species commonly found? Seamounts.

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