The largest, least-protected places on our blue planet are found in the high seas – the open ocean and deep seabed areas that lie beyond national jurisdictions. They cover about 45% of the Earth’s surface, and 64% of the oceans. Belonging to no single nation, they have been, for too long, neglected by all.
The high seas are home to great whales, seabirds, sea turtles, tunas, and sharks that traverse entire ocean basins in search of food. They house deep-dwelling fishes and invertebrate animals that live long, slow-motion lives in eternal darkness. High seas biodiversity is threatened by fishing, mining, climate change and other human-caused impacts. These losses are also our losses, as they threaten the ability of the oceans to sustain marine life and support human societies.
The global community, through the United Nations, has decided that key high seas ecosystems should be protected. Both the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization have developed criteria to identify ecologically important and vulnerable areas in the high seas. Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VMEs) are ecologically important areas that are considered to be highly sensitive to disturbance. One method scientists use to delineate VMEs is the presence of certain ‘indicator species,’ often cold-water corals or glass sponges. By mapping the locations of these indicator species, we can help support efforts to establish new areas as VMEs and increase protection of the high seas. Marine Conservation Institute is currently developing species distribution models to help map the distribution of indicator species throughout the Pacific Ocean. These efforts will ensure that the high seas have a voice and will provide the information necessary to international authorities for making meaningful lasting decisions.