Greenovation Forum Focuses on Need to Protect the Deep Sea

By Claire Discenza

San Diego, CA, May 17, 2012 – “The deep sea is by far the largest habitat on earth,” said Lisa Levin, Director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. “And we’re discovering new functions for these habitats all of the time.There are a variety of metabolites and drugs that have antibiotic, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory properties -- they’re being synthesized, modeled after deep-sea sponges and fungi.”

Lisa Levin and Dominique Rissolo discuss the deep sea during this month's Greenovation Forum at Calit2
Greenovation Forum at Calit2 with Lisa Levin and Dominique Rissolo

Dominique Rissolo, maritime archaeologist and executive director of the Waitt Institute, stressed the need to explore the oceans before working to protect them. “You can’t conserve what you don’t know is there,” he said. The Waitt Institute, a nonprofit research organization based out of La Jolla, Calif., is dedicated to enabling deep maritime exploration around the world and supporting research to inform the designation of marine protected areas.

Together, Levin and Rissolo presented “Deep Sea Conservation Imperatives in the 21st Century,” May’s installment of the UC San Diego Greenovation Forum. The Forum, hosted by UC San Diego’s Sustainability Solutions Institute and the Scripps Foundation for Science and the Environment, brings together representatives from science, industry, and government to encourage green technology and conservation innovation throughout San Diego.

During the Forum, Levin and Rissolo discussed two main -- and sometimes conflicting -- ideas: the first, that more research needs to be done to best inform protection of the mysterious ocean floor, and the second, that conservation cannot afford to wait for exploration.

“It’s not how many species we discover,” said Levin, quoting author Verlyn Klinkenborg. “It’s how to protect them once we’ve found them, and how to keep from destroying the species we do not know before we have a chance to find them.”

Today, explorers and scientists such as Rissolo are able to do far more deep-sea exploration with newly-developed tools, giving us clues as to what lies at the bottom of the ocean, and what might be done to protect it.

Besides funding marine conservation research, the Waitt Institute “gets its hands wet” using cutting-edge Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) to get a gross visualization of great swathes of the ocean floor. “Rather than taking a flashlight and putting it on one little bit of the floor in a dark room, you can turn the lights on: you can look at entire environments over thousands of square nautical miles of sea floor,” said Rissolo.  

“One of the advantages of doing a wide-area survey is to give us the opportunity to characterize the benthic environment in ways that we haven’t been able to before,” he added. The AUVs are able to navigate and map the benthic zone, the lowest regions of a body of water, such as the ocean floor and deep into undersea canyons.

Yet even as these rich environments are being discovered, human activity is contributing to their destruction.  Fishermen use damaging fishing practices such as trawling, or scraping the ocean floor for fish. Trawling kills entire environments through physical damage, as well as through bycatch, or the unintended capture of untargeted organisms during fishing.

In addition, humans pollute the deep ocean with waste, and dramatically alter habitats with carbon emissions. “Our footprint is growing yearly, monthly -- maybe daily,” warned Levin. “We turn lush, upright environments with corals and sponges into barren grounds. Often this happens in places before we’ve had a chance to do any exploration and discovery,” she said.

“What can we do to maintain the integrity of marine ecosystems?” Levin asked. “We need to integrate environmental, social and economic viewpoints in defining sustainable development. The U.S. does have several deep-water marine protected areas, but we don’t have a concerted plan for protecting most of our exclusive economic zones in this way,” she warned.

Greenovation Forums are free and open to the public, although registration is recommended due to seating constraints. To learn more about the series and to RSVP for future events, visit SSI is based at Calit2, which has made the environment one of four 'application thrusts' for institute research in the decade ahead.

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