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Understanding the Great Unknowns and Preventing Permanent Harm to the Deep Ocean

May 16, 2014

Today, the journal Science published a paper by a group of deep sea experts, including me, calling for stewardship of our deep ocean.

Also, today, the International Seabed Authority closes its “stakeholder survey,” soliciting information about how to design a regulatory framework for deep seabed mineral exploitation. Driven by expanding interest in exploiting the deep ocean, the Seabed Authority is designing the legal framework that may determine the long-term health of the largest living space on Earth. Nations too are taking steps to lease their seabeds for mining activities. In light of these important legal developments, it is worth pausing to consider the special nature of the deep ocean and how to best manage it.

deep seaScientists consider waters and seabed below 200 meters in depth as part of the deep ocean.  It is a place of extremes—extreme size, extreme depth, extreme pressure, extreme darkness, and extreme unknowns.   Yet human understanding of deep ocean ecosystems is considerably limited in comparison to the rest of Earth’s ecosystems.  No doubt this lack of understanding is a result of the high cost, technology requirements, and dangers of working at depth.

While knowledge of the deep may be limited, human impact is ongoing.  From intentional dumping, accidental spills, and land-based runoff, the deep sea bed and water column have been and are being polluted with anthropogenic waste.  At the same time, human exploitation is moving deeper.  Fishing vessels scour the deep with trawls.  Oil and gas companies drill a mile below the sea.  Mining companies explore the potential to extract manganese nodules across nation-sized swaths of the abyssal plains.  Even the effects of climate change are already visible in the deep ocean.

As with all natural systems, the deep ocean ignores jurisdictional boundaries.  The deep ocean is found in territorial seas, exclusive economic zones, continental shelves, and areas beyond national jurisdiction.  In most instances, frameworks for managing deep ocean activities include general environmental laws or ocean laws, but few laws focus specifically on human activities in the deep ocean.  Yet deep ocean environments share a suite of characteristics that make them special when considering how best to manage human impact to these regions.

Attributes of the deep ocean—from physical characteristics, to ecosystems, to research and monitoring—should inform management decisions.  In particular, the overwhelming lack of information and high cost of research and monitoring are key attributes that should inform deep ocean management.  These, combined with the recognition that many deep ocean ecosystems are slow to grow and once lost may never recover, should guide the development of key principles for deep ocean management.


Deep sea corals. Credit: NOAA.

In particular, I suggest two guiding principles for deep ocean management:

(1)    The extreme limits of human knowledge of the deep ocean require minimization of human impact in order to avoid significant and permanent harm.

(2)    Lack of knowledge of the deep ocean calls for mechanisms to expand deep ocean research in order to enable sound decision-making and expansion of appropriate utilization of the deep ocean.

With development of regulations for deep seabed mining underway in national and international waters, now is the time to take action to ensure that these new uses are developed in a way to protect and maintain the long-term health of the common heritage of mankind and the water column above it. We must take steps to understand the great unknowns and prevent permanent harm to the deep ocean.

–Kathryn Mengerink, mengerink@eli.org

Co-Director, Ocean Program

Deepwater Horizon: Four Years Later

April 20, 2014

Four years ago today, on April 20, 2010, an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon mobile offshore drilling unit. Eleven crewmen lost their lives in the blast, and the rig burned for the next thirty-six hours. Then, 41 miles off the southeast coast of Louisiana, the Deepwater Horizon sank. At the wellhead, nearly a mile underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, the environmental disaster was just beginning. Oil gushed for the next three months, during which millions of barrels of oil mixed with millions of gallons of dispersant to contaminate more than 1,000 miles of coast.

New pictures released in Daniel Beltrá’s book “SPILL” show some of the acute impacts on the Gulf in the month after the April 2010 explosion. The pictures are evocative, often resembling haunting impressionist paintings.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred nearly four years ago, and the recovery and restoration processes in the Gulf of Mexico region are ongoing. The environmental, social, and economic impacts on the region are massive and enduring. But across the country and the world, the disaster and its aftermath have largely receded from current attention.

Although huge swaths of oil no longer coat the Gulf of Mexico and beaches of the Gulf coast, oil still is present four years later in some areas, and the long-term effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill will continue to be felt for years and decades to come. The Environmental Law Institute (ELI), through our publications, workshops, and social media outreach (Facebook, Twitter), aims to shine a spotlight on the ongoing impacts and the efforts to restore injuries and recover from harm. This blog will be another tool to stay abreast of Gulf issues. Among other things, we will highlight legal developments, economic and industry news related to the restoration process, and other relevant storylines.

Most of all, we aim to never forget the human story, and the environmental and economic realities faced by the people and communities that comprise the Gulf Coast.

–David Roche
Public Interest Law Fellow

Welcome to Ocean Talk

April 20, 2014

In 2006, we launched the Ocean Program at the Environmental Law Institute to tackle pressing ocean and coastal governance challenges. Through discussions and brainstorming sessions the team explored potential target topics, from addressing climate change impacts to exploring ecosystem-based management implementation, and even the contentious (and critically important) issue of whether we would be the plural “Oceans Program” or the singular “Ocean Program.” With a small team of fantastic attorneys and research associates, we quickly moved beyond brainstorming and initiated research in several key areas, keeping our primary focus of making law work for people, places, and the planet.

Eight years later, the initiatives we began in 2006 continue to inform our efforts and serve as a starting point for new directions. In Alaska, we support the role of Alaska Natives in managing resources, In the Gulf of Mexico, we partner to train communities about the legal framework related to post-Deepwater Horizon restoration. In the Mid-Atlantic, we help state and federal decision-makers examine and strengthen legal frameworks for renewable energy development and marine spatial planning. Our research, analysis and training has taken us to places like Israel, to host a study session on ecosystem-based management for the offshore environment and Barbuda, to support local efforts to achieve sustainable fisheries with ocean zoning and improved regulations. The list goes on with our fabulous and growing team of law and policy experts.

We are fortunate to work on a diverse array of issues and be exposed to an incredible web of leaders, experts, and individuals while we do it. Through our Program we are continually inspired to tackle new issues and expand our reach to support healthy oceans and communities.

Today we begin a blog, Ocean Talk, as a tool to share salient issues, perspectives, and resources. We hope the entries will spur ideas and expand the ocean dialogue—and we’re always around to join.

–Kathryn Mengerink & Jordan Diamond
Co-Directors, Ocean Program

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