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If not now, when? Conserving Seamounts on a Global Scale

Featured picture: A deep-sea invertebrate known as a feather star sits perched on a cold-water coral on a seamount in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. President Trump recently signed an Executive Order to keep the monument open for bottom fishing despite its Marine Monument status. Courtesy of NOAA.

Seamounts are massive underwater volcanoes that occur in every ocean basin across the planet. They are so large that they alter water currents in ways that are highly advantageous for marine life, attracting and supporting large numbers of surface-dwelling animals including fish, sharks, sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals. The flanks and summits of seamounts also shelter an incredible array of deep-sea life, including cold-water corals and sponges that build crucial structures for a large number of associated fish and invertebrate species that live on or near the bottom. These habitats are the ‘old-growth forests’ of the ocean – they are long-lived, slow growing, and extremely slow to recover following disturbance.

Unfortunately, these fragile deep-sea ecosystems are at significant risk from a growing number of threats including global warming, ocean acidification, deoxygenation, oil drilling, seafloor mining, and overfishing.  Bottom trawling fisheries that drag enormous nets along the seafloor, indiscriminately catching corals, sponges, and fish cause most of the documented damage to seamounts today. Bottom trawling is frequently conducted at cold-water coral and sponge reefs on seamounts because of their high abundance of commercially fished species, in some regions severely damaging 30-50% of surveyed reefs. Strong and permanent protections are urgently needed to safeguard these fragile ecosystems before they are irrevocably damaged; and Marine Conservation Institute has been a global leader in this decades long fight.  Unfortunately, seamount conservation is difficult to achieve on a global scale. Many seamounts are in international waters beyond any one country’s control and they are out of site in many country’s own waters.

A bottom-trawl fishing vessel hauls in its latest catch. Courtesy of NOAA.

Of the 10,234 seamounts estimated to exist globally, 4,251 (42%) exist within the  exclusive economic zones (EEZs) extending 200 nautical miles from each country’s coast. Within EEZs, individual countries can legislate protective measures, such as the creation of marine protected areas (MPAs) that limit or eliminate harmful human activities. When designed and managed effectively, fully or highly protected MPAs are one of the most effective tools for protecting marine life from a variety of threats. They have been found to increase the diversity of marine life, biomass, and resilience to climate change impacts both within and outside of the MPA boundaries. Unfortunately, MPAs currently protect only a small number of seamounts on a global scale. Within EEZs, only 757 (7%) of seamounts are located within MPAs, leaving the vast majority largely unprotected.

Most seamounts (58%) are located beyond national jurisdictions in an area of the ocean known as the high seas. These open-ocean seamounts are frequently small oases of life in otherwise large expanses of relatively barren areas. In many cases, they act as important stepping stones that allow marine life to disperse and remain connected across these divides of inhospitable seafloor. Due to overlapping interests from multiple countries, establishing any protection whatsoever for seamounts and other unique marine habitats is much more difficult on the high seas. Accordingly, a scant 200 seamounts (<2%) are granted protection from fisheries or other destructive activities in waters beyond national jurisdiction. Marine Conservation Institute helped to found and has worked with partners like the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition and the High Seas Alliance in the long United Nations process for getting a new treaty that will create a framework for protecting these crucial ecosystems where no one ‘rules’ today.

Global seamount distribution, with seamounts located within bottom fishery closures shown in red. Data are from Harris et al. (2014).

Many prominent marine scientists, including those at Marine Conservation Institute, believe that we need to protect at least 30% of our oceans by the year 2030 in order to preserve the diversity of marine life (biodiversity) and to reduce the rate of species extinctions occurring  today which will only accelerate in the future if we do nothing. When national waters and the high seas are considered together, less than 10% of seamounts are currently protected in any way, leaving an incredible 9,210 seamounts open to the large-scale habitat destruction caused by human activities like bottom trawling or seabed mining.  We need to take steps now, such as fully protecting the California Seamounts to make this 30% goal a reality by 2030. Otherwise, many of these biodiversity hotspots could be lost within our lifetime – in many cases before they have even been explored. The delicate, stunning, and ecologically important ecosystems supported by seamounts desperately need our help to ensure their long-term survival in increasingly hazardous oceans.

We need your help to ensure that these underwater treasures are conserved for generations to come. Please take Marine Conservation Institute’s Seamountaineer Pledge to show your support for seamount conservation!