Increasing protection: the deep sea

WWF's Global Marine Programme is working to protect vulnerable sites in deep-sea ecosystems.
Examples of this work include:
  • Establishing deep-sea MPAs. For example, we were involved in the establishment of the first deep-sea MPAs in the Atlantic Ocean, around two hydrothermal vent fields near the Azores (see below), as well as the designation of a huge underwater canyon off Canada's Atlantic coast - the Gully, which reaches depths of over 2000m - as an MPA.
  • Stopping damaging fishing practices. We helped secure several bans on bottom trawling in deep-sea waters, including on several  cold-water corals in European waters (e.g., Hatton and Rockall Banks outside Scotland; UK Darwin Mounds) as well as in the Mediterranean Sea at depths below 1,000m. We also helped secure a ban on bottom trawling, bottom-set gillnets, and longline fishing in five vulnerable deep-sea areas in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean.
  • Strengthening conservation policy for deep-sea areas. For example, we helped secure a commitment by the OSPAR Commission for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic to include deep seas features on its list of theatened and declining habitats, and a commitment by the UN General Assembly to urge states to ban bottom trawling unless it is conducted in compliance with regional management arrangements and can be shown to pose no significant threat to vulnerable marine ecosystems.
  • Advocating against sea bed mining. The exploration for and exploitation of minerals from deep-sea deposits in water depths greater than 200 m will increase the human footprint on previously largely untouched, unknown and vulnerable ecosystems. Seabed mining could affect hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of seabed, destroying benthic organisms on a scale previously unheard of (even compared to deep-sea bottom trawling, the most destructive fishing practice), and releasing both highly toxic chemicals and sediment plumes. WWF will oppose the development of seabed mining until credible governance frameworks are in place.
Polyps of the deep-sea, cold-water coral <i>Lophelia pertusa</i>, Trondheimsfjorden, ... / ©: WWF / Erling SVENSEN
Polyps of the deep-sea, cold-water coral Lophelia pertusa, Trondheimsfjorden, Norway.
© WWF / Erling SVENSEN

Why protect the deep sea?

We are only just beginning to comprehend the diversity of life in the deep seas.

But certain areas are already suffering from damaging human activities, in particular bottom trawling. Between 30 and 50% of Norway’s deep-sea, cold-water coral reefs, for example, have already been damaged in this way.

Protected oases on the ocean floor

Spewing hot, mineral-rich water into the darkness of the deep ocean, hydrothermal vents host an array of life which has adapted to living in often highly toxic waters and complete darkness.

The species living around these vents cannot survive in the open ocean and so cannot move between vents. This means that each vent has its own unique set of species - often entirely new to science.

WWF worked with the Regional Government of the Azores to establish Marine Protected Areas around the Lucky Strike and Menez Gwen hydrothermal vents - the first deep-sea MPAs in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Lucky Strike vent field is at a depth of 1,700m and covers 21 active geysers across an area of roughly 150km2. The vents are dominated by dense beds of mussels, with 66 species being described to date.

The Menez Gwen field is at a depth of 850m. Its waters are less toxic, allowing the survival of non-specialized deep-sea species.
 / ©: D. Desbruyeres, IFREMER
Crab and mussels living on the Menez Gwen hydrothermal vent, Atlantic Ocean.
© D. Desbruyeres, IFREMER

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