This piece, representing Chantecaille’s commitment to environmental issues, required extensive research and interfacing with the PEW Institute.
TEEMING WITH LIFE
The Wondrous World of the International High Seas
Erupting underwater volcanoes…sea creatures that thrive in 300°C temperatures … 2,000-year-old corals living on mountains submerged 1,600 meters below the sea … masses of floating sea kelp that provide nutrients to more than 2,000 species: these are just a few of the countless natural wonders of the High Seas. Truly gems of the earth, they contain some of our most uniquely beautiful and biologically diverse ecosystems. The High Seas consist of all oceans beyond 200 nautical miles off the coastlines and are considered international waters. Despite their comparable value to such treasured national heritage sites as the Great Barrier Reef, Yellowstone Park and Serengeti National Park, these magnificent places are unknown to the vast majority. The rich abundance of life and history found beneath the High Seas has remained largely out of the public eye—but the time has come to change that.
The High Seas are in the extraordinary position of existing outside of national jurisdiction. With no common steward, they are unprotected and vulnerable to damaging practices and exploitation. Belonging to no one in particular, they belong to us all.
Each one of us has a stake in their preservation, and a right—if not a duty—to have a say in how they are managed and protected. In addition to the threats posed by fisheries, mining and drilling, rapid climate changes are also beginning to adversely affect these environments. Once stripped of life, the High Seas cannot be restored. If we do not rally around this cause and devise collective and comprehensive management, we can expect to see the health and resiliency of these ecosystems continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate. We are beginning to understand the interconnected web of life within our oceans, but there are endless discoveries to be made in the High Seas. Without our support, there is little hope these will ever come to light.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE HIGH SEAS
THE EMPEROR SEAMOUNT CHAIN
Seamounts are like mountains rising up from the seafloor that never reach the ocean’s surface. The Emperor Seamount Chain is an archipelago that is the northern extension of the Hawaiian Ridge towards Eastern Russia and the Bering Sea. The formation, which originated 50 million years ago through volcanic eruptions in the seafloor, is longer than the Rocky Mountains of North America. Today, it includes more than 80 active volcanoes.
Seamounts provide shallower areas where currents move more quickly and provide plants and animals with better nutrients. This upwelling supports the habitat for small fish and crustaceans that in turn attract many larger migratory species, including Pacific northern bluefin, albacore, and skipjack tunas; Dall’s porpoises, Sei whales, seals, salmon and squid. Pelagic armorhead, alfonsin, oreo, mirror dory, lanternfish, lampfish and lightfish—some of which are endemic to the area—are plentiful, often serving as food for the larger species.
Due to the high productivity and diverse fish populations, it is not surprising that commercial fishing is the greatest threat to the Emperor Seamount. Trawling has become so sophisticated that it now ravages areas previously deemed too deep or hazardous. Bottom trawl fishing poses the greatest threat to the remaining habitat and biodiversity of the Emperor Seamount Chain, which once contained more than half of the world’s coral. Not only are fish, such as tuna, heavily overharvested but methods of trawling the tops of the seamounts destroy fragile ecosystems which have taken thousands of years to establish.
DALL’S PORPOISE (Phocoenoides dalli)
An incredibly fast swimmer (up to 30 knots), this small cetacean is only found in the North Pacific. It loves to swim with boats, riding the bow waves and creating the fan-shaped splashes of water known as “rooster tails.” Sadly, the playful Dall’s porpoise is often taken as bycatch by High Seas salmon fisheries which, though largely banned, have continued to threaten its habitat.
THE GAKKEL RIDGE
Below the Arctic ice cap lies the shallowest ocean on the planet surrounded by the coastlines of Greenland, Europe, Russia, Canada and Alaska. The Gakkel Ridge is one of three large mountain ridges in the Arctic Ocean. It is about 1,100 miles long, connects the Mid-Atlantic Ridge to the Laptev Sea Ridge and crosses the North Pole. Almost completely covered by pack ice (frozen seawater), it has trapped and destroyed many ships, ruining expeditions and often taking the lives of the explorers who for centuries sought to sail the Northwest Passage. Henry Hudson and James Cook were just two of the legendary adventurers repelled by this ocean of ice.
These frozen conditions have also prevented ships from mapping the sea floor. In 1999, a nuclear submarine was finally able to procure evidence of volcanic activity at the Gakkel Ridge. Two volcanoes about two miles deep and covering 280 square miles were found at the same location as hundreds of previously detected seaquakes. Subsequently, evidence of a large volcanic eruption and a dozen hydrothermal vents were also discovered. Since the Gakkel Ridge is distinct and separate from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, current expeditions are investigating what lives around these vents. Whatever life forms exist have evolved remotely from the rest of the world and would be unlike anything else on the planet. Rocks found at Gakkel Ridge are similar to those that erupted billions of years ago, so flora and fauna found around the vents may also resemble early life on earth.
The ice cover at the Gakkel Ridge has been retreating and thinning out at an unprecedented rate. Most scientists agree that this is not due to the newly discovered volcanoes but to global warming and the pollution known as “Arctic haze” or “brown cloud.” Unregulated industry and transportation in the surrounding continents is generally perceived to be the culprit behind the ice receding. The abundant wildlife of the Arctic, including polar bears, fish, birds, seals, walruses and whales, are all seriously threatened by the loss of the ice shelf. Protecting areas of the Gakkel Ridge will ensure that international mining and habitat destruction, along with increased greenhouse gas emissions from human traffic, are managed in order to sustain resources and fragile ecosystems.
POLAR BEAR (Ursus maritimus)
The world’s largest land predator, the polar bear is the first animal listed as an Endangered Species due to global warming. The polar bear hunts its primary prey, the arctic seal, from the sea ice. It has a difficult time catching seals in the water but, because the ice platforms are melting, it is increasingly forced to do so—with little success. Polar bears have recently been found foraging in human-settled areas and have been observed looking gaunt. They are starving. Malnourished females are giving birth to smaller cubs that have far less chance of surviving in the harsh climate.
THE SOUTHEAST SHOAL
Sail southeast from Newfoundland, Canada, and you’ll find yourself above a sandy plateau about 50 meters deep. This is the Southeast Shoal of the Grand Banks, an area of about 10,300 square kilometers (roughly the size of Los Angeles). Bracketed by two currents, it is warmer than the adjacent waters and contains a constant upwelling of nutrients that makes it a uniquely productive and bio-diverse marine environment.
For hundreds of years, the Southeast Shoal has been an important food source for the inhabitants of southern Europe and North America. Its slopes are home to deep sea coldwater coral, sponges and crustaceans. The area is a nursery ground for important commercial species such as Atlantic cod, American plaice and yellowtail flounder, all of which have been severely depleted through commercial fishing. Given the international nature of the fisheries on the Grand Banks, cooperation to protect commercial stocks and marine biodiversity would set an important precedent for High Seas marine ecosystem protection.
As energy resources become increasingly scarce, oil and gas exploitation of the Grand Banks has increased. Seismic exploration for fossil fuels is harmful to marine mammals and extraction decreases the survival of larval fish. It is crucial to protect the area of the Southern Shoal before natural gas and oil companies are able to claim extraction rights.
The Southeast Shoal is geologically significant as a spawning ground for capelin, a small fish of the smelt family that is an important food source for many larger fish and whales. It is believed that during the last Ice Age, the Southeast Shoal was an island where capelin spawned on beaches. Today, they still use this spawning ground, though it is now located 50 meters underwater. Humpbacks, minke, blue and fin whales have all been observed feeding on capelin off the coast of Newfoundland.
THE CHARLIE-GIBBS FRACTURE ZONE
The Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone is a part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge consisting of an underwater mountain chain and seamounts ranging from 700-4,500 meters below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. The fracture in the ridge opens up a deep-sea channel and forms a cold, deepwater river between the western and eastern parts of the Northern Atlantic Ocean. The unique and truly spectacular topography of the area creates diverse habitats for 41 types of coral, thriving communities of sponges and many species of large fish.
A great number of the deep-water species that thrive in this area are slow growing and have irregular reproduction cycles and longer gestations, making them less resilient and more vulnerable to exploitation. Deep-water sharks—often targeted just for their fins—and orange roughy are both highly sensitive to the impact of deep-water fishing. Whales, dolphins and other fish are among the marine life that has also suffered severe reductions in the area.
The CGFZ provides essential feeding grounds for large migrating marine species. The sei, sperm and fin whales and the common and Atlantic white-sided dolphins feed on the area’s plentiful red shrimps, krill and squid.
GLASS SPONGE (Hexactinellida)
These amazing creatures, relatively uncommon and found mostly at substantial depths, can live as long as 15,000 years, They possess a unique system for rapidly conducting electrical impulses across their bodies, making it possible for them to respond quickly to external stimuli. Fibers that extend outward in a tuft at the base of their skeletons work as optical fibers that are surprisingly similar to those used in modern telecommunication networks. They conduct light beautifully when they are illuminated, and employ the same optical principles that modern engineers use to design industrial fiber optics.
THE SARGASSO SEA
There are no sunbathers along the shores of the Sargasso Sea as this unique body of water is the only sea in the world without a coast. Instead, it is bordered on all sides by currents—the Gulf Stream to the west, the North Atlantic Current to the north, the Canary Current to the east, and the North Atlantic Equatorial Current to the south—that isolate the area and make it unusually warm and calm. When Colombus discovered the Sargasso Sea, the massive amounts of seaweed covering the water’s surface led him to believe he was near shore rather than hundreds of miles off the coast. Adding to the area’s mystique is its connection to the legendary Bermuda Triangle, which lies within the sea’s boundaries.
The Sargasso Sea derives its name from the seaweed Sargassum that forms the buoyant mats that are a vital resource for numerous marine organisms. Seabirds, marine mammals, turtles, billfish, invertebrates and thousands of microbes live off the Sargasso Sea, many of them using the seaweed as camouflage. Sargassum is the only spawning ground for the American eel, which hatches in the Sargasso Sea to spawn at the end of its lifecycle. American eels, rarely seen, are endangered due to pollution, overfishing, seaweed harvesting and climate change. The Sargasso also provides a nursery area for numerous fish and loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings and is on the migratory path of yellowfin, endangered Atlantic bluefin and albacore tunas, as well as the humpback whale.
Highly active commercial and recreational fisheries pose the greatest threat to the Sargasso Sea’s habitat. The boats disrupt drift algae habitats and pollute the area, and overfishing has depleted species. Incidental bycatch from longlines, gillnets, trawls, traps, pots and dredges includes seabirds, sea turtles, sharks, rays, skate and marlin. Some unregulated commercial boats also collect Sargassum for use in fertilizers or food additives, such as thickeners for ice cream.
LOGGERHEAD TURTLE (Caretta caretta)
These extraordinary creatures can grow up to 800 lbs and more than three feet. They feed on mollusks, crustaceans, fish, jellyfish and other marine animals which they crush with their large and powerful jaws. They are immune to the toxins of the Portuguese Man O' War which also features in their diet. As with other sea turtles, females return to lay their eggs on or near the same beach where they hatched. Unlike other sea turtles, courtship and mating usually do not take place near the nesting beach, but rather along the migration routes between feeding and breeding grounds. Most loggerheads that reach adulthood live for longer than 30 years and often past 195 years.
THE LORD HOWE RISE
The Lord Howe Rise is the northwestern part of Zealandia, a continent 600 kilometers from the Australian coast that sank into the Pacific Ocean long before humans walked the earth. It was attached to Australia until 60-85 million years ago and Antarctica until 130-85 million years ago. Zealandia is 1.5 million square kilometers extending from the southwest of New Caledonia to the Challenger Plateau. The island nation of New Zealand is a part of Zealandia that breaks the surface of the ocean.
The Lord Howe Rise is a plateau about 1,500-2,500 meters deep. Among its occasional seamounts is the Lord Howe Island, discovered in 1788 by a British colonial naval vessel sailing from Sydney to a penal colony on Norfolk Island. A recent voyage to explore deep sea habitats in this region pulled up more than 500 vertebrate and 1,300 invertebrate species, including some previously unknown like the bottom-dwelling coffinfish, the blind lobster and the jewel squid with one disproportionately large eye.
The Northern Lord Howe Rise is currently being assessed for its petroleum potential and the area also has widespread long-term hydrocarbon potential in the form of gas hydrates. Though this exploration may be confined to the legal areas closer to shore, any drilling or thermal stimulation would certainly have a negative impact on High Seas ecosystems.
DUMBO OCTOPUS (Opisthoteuthis)
Also called the finned octopus, these beauties—which can grow up to 3 meters—have fins on their bodies to help them glide through the water. (The resemblance of these to big, flapping ears resulted in their name!) Their arms are webbed and, when spread, look like big Frisbees. They glide along the seafloor, using sensory hairs to target their prey.
JEWEL SQUID (Histioteuthis)
Also called “cockeyed squid,” this creature’s left eye is much larger than the right. It serves as the lookout for prey while the right scans below for predators. They hang at a 45-degree angle in order to scan above and below while they swim, and create a light that masks their silhouette.
HUMPBACK ANGLERFISH (Melanocetus johnsoni)
Only about the size of a tennis ball, this fish has a stomach large enough to fit anything it can catch. The female has huge teeth and a rod on her head with a light to attract prey. They hang mid-water waiting for prey to appear. The male bites the female and drinks her nutrient-rich blood in return for his sperm. Eventually the flesh of the two fish permanently fuses.
THE ROSS SEA
The ice covering this vast expanse of cold, dense water in the Southern Ocean is transformed in the spring. Sunlight begins to melt the hard surface of this deep, ice-choked bay and gradually makes its way to the world below. The plankton blooms to life, starting a chain of sustenance that nurtures one of the most intact food webs remaining on the planet. Millions of penguins gather to tend their fast-growing chicks; whales are seen in great numbers; seals haul out onto ice floes; and the skies fill with albatrosses and other seabirds.
One of the few marine systems to remain virtually undisturbed by human impact, the Ross Sea provides a critical feeding and breeding ground for a high percentage of the global population of large marine mammals, flightless seabirds and many unusual fish. This includes Emperor and Adélie penguins, minke whales, Waddell seals, killer whales and the Antarctic toothfish (commonly known as Chilean sea bass).
Sadly, the Ross Sea has now been targeted by industrial fisheries. The introduction of the Antarctic toothfish industry is already having adverse effects on not only the species’ stock but on its predators and prey populations as well, potentially jeopardizing the entire food chain. Additionally, global warming may affect the ice concentration in this area that is prone to increased melting from warming oceans. Its demise would be an important precursor to the eventual collapse of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
These curious creatures are quite capable of going twenty miles just to get a look at something. If the snow is too deep for walking, they fall forward on their stomachs and push with their feet like motorized sleds. They swim remarkably fast by swinging their wing flippers in an oval motion. Coming out of the water they can flash up fast enough to land on an ice ledge 4 feet above water level. Aside from the mortal threat of the leopard seal (and the impact of man), they lead relatively carefree lives.
THE SAYA DE MALHA BANK
This submerged landmass in the Indian Ocean—composed of the smaller North Bank and the enormous South Bank—is part of the vast undersea Mascarene Plateau. It lies east of Madagascar and north of the island of Mauritius, and falls into Mauritian territorial waters. The Portuguese explorers who discovered it 500 years ago named it after its “billowing carpets” of seagrass. Saya de Malha Bank’s remote location and conditions hazardous to navigation make it among the least-studied shallow marine eco-regions on the planet.
Millions of years ago, the Saya de Malha Bank was a mountainous volcanic island that subsequently sank below the waves. Today, these seagrass communities—perhaps the largest in the world—are an oasis of high productivity, full of the nutrients and plankton delivered from adjacent deep waters. They are the only place that such a large shallow area exists within the zone of the ocean where photosynthesis occurs. The seagrass is interspersed with small coral reefs that are a critical stepping-stone for the migration of shallow-water species. In some areas the banks glow pink with an encrusting red algae that lives on the limestone beneath.
Saya de Malha harbors many kinds of reef fish, green turtles, spotted dolphins and whales. Its remoteness from direct human impact makes it an important reservoir to maintain biodiversity. The reefs are nevertheless quite vulnerable to damage from trawling and bottom fishing, and require protection if they are to remain a natural coral ark. It is also important to safeguard this area since it is a crucial nursery ground for invertebrates, coral reef fish and larval fish, as well as a breeding ground for endangered blue and sperm whales.
SPERM WHALE (Physeter catodon)
The largest of all toothed whales and the largest living toothed animal, the sperm whale was named after the milky-white waxy substance, spermaceti, found in its head and originally mistaken for sperm. Its enormous head and distinctive shape, as well as its central role in Moby Dick, have led many to describe it as the archetypal whale. It feeds on squid and fish, diving as deep as 2,200 meters in order to obtain its prey, making it the deepest diving mammal in the world. Because it matures slowly, has only one offspring and reproduces infrequently, it was especially prone to overfishing and is currently listed as vulnerable.
Established in 2002, the Pelagos Marine Mammal Sanctuary is the first and only international High Seas Marine Protected Area in the world. It is a sanctuary for that encompasses over 87,500 square kilometers, covering areas of the Mediterranean seas of France, Italy and Monaco. The Pelagos Sanctuary sets an important precedent for expanding protective measures beyond national waters into the High Seas.
This marine area is characterized by unique levels of offshore productivity and intense biological activity that is generated along the boundary between coastal and offshore waters. The prevailing “mistral”, a northwesterly wind, lifts up nutrients and organic substances contributed by rivers (most notably the Rhone) from the deep waters. Consequent elevated levels of chlorophyll result in highly diversified plankton that attract predators to the area and make it suitable for the breeding and feeding needs of all the whales and dolphins found in the Mediterranean. The only other indigenous marine mammal, the monk seal, was rendered extinct in the sanctuary area but could theoretically re-colonize its shores in the future should conditions remain favorable.
The conversion of this area into a sanctuary has had an enormous positive impact on the flora and fauna which had been threatened by vessel noise and collision, fisheries, pollution, military sonar, seismic oil and gas exploration and recreational activities like offshore whale-watching.
SHORT-BEAKED COMMON DOLPHIN (Delphinus delphis)
Considered rare and endangered, this sleek, streamlined creature is the fastest of all the small dolphins, reaching speeds of 27 miles per hour. Traveling in pods of up to 10,000 members, they communicate with a series of high-pitched whistles and clicks. Still being hunted, many more are accidentally ensnared in nets used to capture tuna.
BLUE WHALE (Balaenoptera musculus)
This bluish-grey marine mammal belongs to the suborder of baleen whales. At up to 33 metres (110 ft) in length and 200 short tons or more in weight, it is believed to be the largest animal ever to have existed. Its diet consists mainly of krill, as well as small fish and squid it consumes incidentally. Typically, it feed at depths of more than 100 m (330 ft) during the day, and only surface-feeds at night. It feeds by lunging forward at groups of krill, taking the animals and a large quantity of water into its mouth and then filtering out the water through the baleen plates by pressure from the ventral pouch and tongue. An adult can eat up to 40 million krill (about 8,000 pounds) a day.
EAST PACIFIC RISE
The East Pacific Rise is a mid-oceanic ridge, located along the floor of the Pacific Ocean near Central America. It runs from an undefined point near Antarctica in the south to its termination at the Salton Sea basin in southern California. The EPR contains a well-studied hydrothermal vent field, active since the middle of the Jurassic Period, that is believed to be the point of dispersal for the planet’s vent communities. Due to its underwater eruptions, the site provides a unique opportunity to study the role of seafloor in the evolution of mid-ocean ridges and the effect these eruptions have on hydrothermal communities.
Following a 1991 eruption that eradicated all signs of life, scientists were able to follow the subsequent re-colonization of the area. Microorganisms arrived first and attracted small crustaceans and crabs. Then came tubeworms followed by mussels, polychaete worms and more than 100 other types of creatures.
Black smokers (chimneys) release fluids with temperatures in excess of 300-400C that contain hydrogen sulfide and heavy metals. These vent fluids are more buoyant than ocean water, so they rise in plumes, mixing with the ambient seawater until they reach neutral buoyancy. The plume then spreads horizontally, causing temperature and chemical gradients, which dictate what can survive in the area. Although scientific research has to date been the main activity in the East Pacific Rise, bioprospecting is now a concern. Biotech companies benefit from multimillion-dollar sales of enzymes originating from microorganisms that thrive in diverse high-temperature environments.
In shallower waters, these are common worms about the size of your hand. But down in the deep ocean, they are one of the most complex heat-tolerant organisms on earth, thriving on the hydrogen sulfide gas released from the vents and growing up to eight feet long. These worms lack mouths, anuses, intestines and stomachs but their insides are lined with bacteria that oxidize the hydrogen sulfide, turning it into usable nutrients. This intriguing process provides clues to how life on earth began billions of years ago.
Earth’s five oceans cover 141,600,000 square miles. That’s 72% of our planet’s surface. If our oceans go, the rest of the world will surely follow. As the situation becomes more dire, international public awareness of environmental issues is rising. More attention is now being called to the plight of our marine areas and the damaging fishing, recreational, mining and bioprospecting practices that have placed them in jeopardy. Recognizing the value and importance of these irreplaceable global assets, the World Summit on Sustainable Development set a goal of developing a network of representative Marine Protected Areas by 2012. The international community has recently adopted scientific criteria for the identification of ecologically and biologically significant areas in the open ocean and deep sea, together with guidance for the development of representative networks of Marine Protected Areas. This represents a golden opportunity for all of us to work together to establish protection for the High Seas. We must do everything we can to promote conservation and to safeguard the natural beauty of our planet for this generation and all those to come.