Resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) require states and competent authorities to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs), ecologically important habitats in the deep sea that are considered to be especially at risk from anthropogenic disturbances such as fishing. The lack of data concerning the location and extent of VMEs poses a significant obstacle to their protection. Habitat suitability modeling is increasingly used in spatial management planning due to its ability to predict the distribution and niche of marine organisms based on limited input data. We generated broad-scale, medium-resolution (1 km2) ensemble models for ten VME indicator taxa within the New Zealand Exclusive Economic Zone and a portion of the South Pacific Regional Fishery Management Organisation (SPRFMO) convention area. Ensemble models were constructed using a weighted average of three habitat suitability model types: Boosted Regression Trees, Maximum Entropy, and Random Forest. All models performed well, with area under the curve scores above 0.9, and ensemble models marginally outperformed any of the individual modeling approaches. Highly suitable habitat for each VME indicator taxa was predicted to occur in relatively small areas throughout the region, typically associated with elevated seafloor features with steep slopes. Determining the spatial distribution of VME indicator taxa is critical for assessing the current and historical extent of bottom trawling impacts on benthic communities, and for supporting the improved spatial management of fisheries in the South Pacific Ocean. Given the additional threats of climate change and ocean acidification to VME indicator taxa throughout the deep sea, habitat suitability modeling is likely to play an increasing role in designing effective, long-term protection measures for cumulative impacts on VMEs.
Deep-sea ecosystems and hydrothermal vents
Pollution of the marine environment by large and microscopic plastic fragments and their potential impacts on organisms has stimulated considerable research interest and has received widespread publicity. However, relatively little attention has been paid to the fate and effects of microplastic particles that are fibrous in shape, also referred as microfibres, which are mostly shed from synthetic textiles during production or washing. Here we assess composition and abundance of microfibres in seafloor sediments in southern European seas, filling gaps in the limited understanding of the long-range transport and magnitude of this type of microplastic pollution. We report abundances of 10–70 microfibres in 50 ml of sediment, including both natural and regenerated cellulose, and synthetic plastic (polyester, acrylic, polyamide, polyethylene, and polypropylene) fibres. Following a shelf-slope-deep basin continuum approach, based on the relative abundance of fibres it would appear that coastal seas retain around 33% of the sea floor microfibres, but greater quantities of the fibres are exported to the open sea, where they accumulate in sediments. Submarine canyons act as preferential conduits for downslope transport of microfibres, with 29% of the seafloor microfibres compared to 18% found on the open slope. Around 20% of the microfibres found had accumulated in the deep open sea beyond 2000m of water depth. The remoteness of the deep sea does not prevent the accumulation of microfibres, being available to become integrated into deep sea organisms.
Development of guidance for environmental management of the deep-sea mining industry is important as contractors plan to move from exploration to exploitation activities. Two priorities for environmental management are monitoring and mitigating the impacts and effects of activities. International regulation of deep-sea mining activities stipulates the creation of two types of zones for local monitoring within a claim, impact reference zones (IRZ) and preservation reference zones (PRZ). The approach used for allocating and assessing these zones will affect what impacts can be measured, and hence taken into account and managed. This paper recommends key considerations for establishing these reference zones for polymetallic nodule mining. We recommend that zones should be suitably large (Recommendation 1) and have sufficient separation (R2) to allow for repeat monitoring of representative impacted and control sites. Zones should be objectively defined following best-practice and statistically robust approaches (R3). This will include the designation of multiple PRZ and IRZ (R4) for each claim. PRZs should be representative of the mined area, and thus should contain high -quality resource (R5) but PRZs in other habitats could also be valuable (R6). Sediment plumes will influence design of PRZ and may need additional IRZ to monitor their effects (R7), which may extend beyond the boundaries of a claim (R8). The impacts of other expected changes should be taken into account (R9). Sharing PRZ design, placement, and monitoring could be considered amongst adjacent claims (R10). Monitoring should be independently verified to enhance public trust and stakeholder support (R11).
This study reports plastic debris pollution in the deep-sea based on the information from a recently developed database. The Global Oceanographic Data Center (GODAC) of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) launched the Deep-sea Debris Database for public use in March 2017. The database archives photographs and videos of debris that have been collected since 1983 by deep-sea submersibles and remotely operated vehicles. From the 5010 dives in the database, 3425 man-made debris items were counted. More than 33% of the debris was macro-plastic, of which 89% was single-use products, and these ratios increased to 52% and 92%, respectively, in areas deeper than 6000 m. The deepest record was a plastic bag at 10898 m in the Mariana Trench. Deep-sea organisms were observed in the 17% of plastic debris images, which include entanglement of plastic bags on chemosynthetic cold seep communities. Quantitative density analysis for the subset data in the western North Pacific showed plastic density ranging from 17 to 335 items km−2 at depths of 1092–5977 m. The data show that, in addition to resource exploitation and industrial development, the influence of land-based human activities has reached the deepest parts of the ocean in areas more than 1000 km from the mainland. Establishment of international frameworks on monitoring of deep-sea plastic pollution as an Essential Ocean Variable and a data sharing protocol are the keys to delivering scientific outcomes that are useful for the effective management of plastic pollution and the conservation of deep-sea ecosystems.
The accepted geographic range of a species is related to both opportunity and effort in sampling that range. In deepwater ecosystems where human access is limited, the geographic ranges of many marine species are likely to be underestimated. A chance recording from baited cameras deployed on deep uncharted reef revealed an eastern blue devil fish (Paraplesiops bleekeri) at a depth of 51 m and more than 2 km further down the continental shelf slope than previously observed. This is the first verifiable observation of eastern blue devil fish, a protected and endemic southeastern Australian temperate reef species, at depths greater than the typically accepted depth range of 30 m. Knowledge on the ecology of this and many other reef species is indeed often limited to shallow coastal reefs, which are easily accessible by divers and researchers. Suitable habitat for many reef species appears to exist on deeper offshore reefs but is likely being overlooked due to the logistics of conducting research on these often uncharted habitats. On the basis of our observation at a depth of 51 m and observations by recreational fishers catching eastern blue devil fishes on deep offshore reefs, we suggest that the current depth range of eastern blue devil fish is being underestimated at 30 m. We also observed several common reef species well outside of their accepted depth range. Notably, immaculate damsel (Mecaenichthys immaculatus), red morwong (Cheilodactylus fuscus), mado (Atypichthys strigatus), white-ear (Parma microlepis) and silver sweep (Scorpis lineolata) were abundant and recorded in a number of locations at up to a depth of at least 55 m. This underestimation of depth potentially represents a large area of deep offshore reefs and micro-habitats out on the continental shelf that could contribute to the resilience of eastern blue devil fish to extinction risk and contribute to the resilience of many reef species to climate change.
Several forms of calcifying scleractinian corals provide important habitat complexity in the deep-sea and are consistently associated with a high biodiversity of fish and other invertebrates. How these corals may respond to the future predicted environmental conditions of ocean acidification is poorly understood, but any detrimental effects on these marine calcifiers will have wider impacts on the ecosystem. Colonies of Solenosmilia variabilis, a protected deep-sea coral commonly occurring throughout the New Zealand region, were collected during a cruise in March 2014 from the Louisville Seamount Chain. Over a 12-month period, samples were maintained in temperature controlled (∼3.5 °C) continuous flow-through tanks at a seawater pH that reflects the region’s current conditions (7.88) and an end-of-century scenario (7.65). Impacts on coral growth and the intensity of colour saturation (as a proxy for the coenenchyme tissue that covers the coral exoskeleton and links the coral polyps) were measured bimonthly. In addition, respiration rate was measured after a mid-term (six months) and long-term (12 months) exposure period. Growth rates were highly variable, ranging from 0.53 to 3.068 mm year−1 and showed no detectable difference between the treatment and control colonies. Respiration rates also varied independently of pH and ranged from 0.065 to 1.756 µmol O2 g protein−1 h−1. A significant change in colour was observed in the treatment group over time, indicating a loss of coenenchyme. This loss was greatest after 10 months at 5.28% and could indicate a reallocation of energy with physiological processes (e.g. growth and respiration) being maintained at the expense of coenenchyme production. This research illustrates important first steps to assessing and understanding the sensitivity of deep-sea corals to ocean acidification.
Hadal trenches, oceanic locations deeper than 6,000 m, are thought to have distinct microbial communities compared to those at shallower depths due to high hydrostatic pressures, topographical funneling of organic matter, and biogeographical isolation. Here we evaluate the hypothesis that hadal trenches contain unique microbial biodiversity through analyses of the communities present in the bottom waters of the Kermadec and Mariana trenches. Estimates of microbial protein production indicate active populations under in situ hydrostatic pressures and increasing adaptation to pressure with depth. Depth, trench of collection, and size fraction are important drivers of microbial community structure. Many putative hadal bathytypes, such as members related to the Marinimicrobia, Rhodobacteraceae, Rhodospirilliceae, and Aquibacter, are similar to members identified in other trenches. Most of the differences between the two trench microbiomes consists of taxa belonging to the Gammaproteobacteria whose distributions extend throughout the water column. Growth and survival estimates of representative isolates of these taxa under deep-sea conditions suggest that some members may descend from shallower depths and exist as a potentially inactive fraction of the hadal zone. We conclude that the distinct pelagic communities residing in these two trenches, and perhaps by extension other trenches, reflect both cosmopolitan hadal bathytypes and ubiquitous genera found throughout the water column.
Since the discovery of hydrothermal vents 40-years ago, long-term time-series have focused on mid-ocean ridge systems. Based on these studies, hydrothermal vents are widely considered to be dynamic, ephemeral habitats. Under this premise, national, and international regulatory bodies are currently planning for the commercial mining of polymetallic sulfide deposits from hydrothermal vents. However, here we provide evidence of longevity and habitat stability that does not align with historic generalizations. Over a 10-year time-series focused on the back-arc basin systems off the west coast of the Kingdom of Tonga (South Pacific), we find the hydrothermal vents are remarkably stable habitats. Using high-resolution photo mosaics and spatially explicit in situ measurements to document natural changes of five hydrothermal vent edifices, we discovered striking stability in the vent structures themselves, as well as in the composition and coverage of the vent-associated species, with some evidence of microdistribution permanence. These findings challenge the way we think about hydrothermal vent ecosystems and their vulnerability and resilience to deep-sea mining activities.
Species inhabiting deep-sea hydrothermal vents are strongly influenced by the geological setting, as it provides the chemical-rich fluids supporting the food web, creates the patchwork of seafloor habitat, and generates catastrophic disturbances that can eradicate entire communities. The patches of vent habitat host a network of communities (a metacommunity) connected by dispersal of planktonic larvae. The dynamics of the metacommunity are influenced not only by birth rates, death rates and interactions of populations at the local site, but also by regional influences on dispersal from different sites. The connections to other communities provide a mechanism for dynamics at a local site to affect features of the regional biota. In this paper, we explore the challenges and potential benefits of applying metacommunity theory to vent communities, with a particular focus on effects of disturbance. We synthesize field observations to inform models and identify data gaps that need to be addressed to answer key questions including: (1) what is the influence of the magnitude and rate of disturbance on ecological attributes, such as time to extinction or resilience in a metacommunity; (2) what interactions between local and regional processes control species diversity, and (3) which communities are “hot spots” of key ecological significance. We conclude by assessing our ability to evaluate resilience of vent metacommunities to human disturbance (e.g., deep-sea mining). Although the resilience of a few highly disturbed vent systems in the eastern Pacific has been quantified, these values cannot be generalized to remote locales in the western Pacific or mid Atlantic where disturbance rates are different and information on local controls is missing.
Deep-sea tailings disposal (DSTD) and its shallow water counterpart, submarine tailings disposal (STD), are practiced in many areas of the world, whereby mining industries discharge processed mud- and rock-waste slurries (tailings) directly into the marine environment. Pipeline discharges and other land-based sources of marine pollution fall beyond the regulatory scope of the London Convention and the London Protocols (LC/LP). However, guidelines have been developed in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to improve tailings waste management frameworks in which mining companies can operate. DSTD can impact ocean ecosystems in addition to other sources of stress, such as from fishing, pollution, energy extraction, tourism, eutrophication, climate change and, potentially in the future, from deep-seabed mining. Environmental management of DSTD may be most effective when placed in a broader context, drawing expertise, data and lessons from multiple sectors (academia, government, society, industry, and regulators) and engaging with international deep-ocean observing programs, databases and stewardship consortia. Here, the challenges associated with DSTD are identified, along with possible solutions, based on the results of a number of robust scientific studies. Also highlighted are the key issues, trends of improved practice and techniques that could be used if considering DSTD (such as increased precaution if considering submarine canyon locations), likely cumulative impacts, and research needed to address current knowledge gaps.