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Protecting deep reefs

Scientists call for urgent conservation of deep reefs, one of the planet’s largest and least protected ecosystems
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Aerial view of Mauritius island, Western Indian Ocean

As world leaders, government negotiators, scientists and conservationists gather at COP15 (07-19 Dec) to agree to halt and reverse nature loss, an international team of marine scientists and conservationists has made an impassioned plea for the urgent conservation of deep reefs.

Their calls are based on a new study, recently published in the journal Conservation Letters, led by scientists from Nekton, the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) and the University of Oxford.

The study confirms for the first time that deep reef habitats, notably in the WIO, are largely unprotected despite being under threat from a multitude of stressors, including overfishing, pollution, climate change and, in the near future, seabed mining.

Why deep reefs need protection

Their calls follow COP27 in Egypt, where many scientists, politicians and campaigners concluded that the 1.5°C climate goal died, signing the death warrant on the vast majority of shallow reefs.

Deep reefs (found >30m) provide essential ecosystem services for climate change resilience, ocean health and food security while also acting as a refuge for organisms threatened in shallow water, including commercially important species.

Yet deep reefs are barely protected, even though they have a larger geographic footprint than their shallower counterparts.

Furthermore, the scarcity of fish in shallow waters, combined with modern deep-sea fishing technologies, is resulting in deep reefs being increasingly exploited by coastal communities who need fish for their food security.

‘We strongly encourage deep reefs to be included in conservation and sustainable management action to complement global targets, notably 30% protection of the global ocean by 2030.

‘Deep reefs are critical to a healthy marine ecosystem and face similar threats from overfishing, pollution and climate change faced by the much-imperilled shallow reef system.’

Lead author, marine biologist at the University of Oxford’s Department of Biology and a Research Scientist at Nekton

A threatened marine region

Covering over 8% of the global ocean, the Western Indian Ocean is one of the least known, least protected and most threatened marine regions of our planet.

Shallow and deep coral reefs of the WIO are marine biodiversity hotspots with high numbers of species that are found nowhere else on Earth.

They are essential to the region’s 100 million people living within 100km of the coastline, including over three million people who are directly dependent on artisanal fishing for their livelihoods.

The population is projected to double over the next 30 years, driving greater stressors on the ocean’s biological capacity to support lives and livelihoods.

‘To ensure a prosperous and resilient Western Indian Ocean, it is essential that deep reefs are no longer ignored by scientists and policymakers, and they must be specifically considered in conservation and management strategies.’

Co-author, executive director of the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA)

Recommendations for reefs

The scientific team has co-developed a new framework for conserving deep reefs including practical recommendations and specific actions for regional policymakers, conservationists and scientists.

The scientists are urging policymakers to use the COP15 biodiversity summit to agree to highly protect 30% of ecosystems by 2030 (‘30×30’), and include deep reefs in this target.

The team specifically wants to see deep reef ecosystems and their resources conserved through their inclusion in fishery regulations, marine protected areas and marine spatial planning.

They want current management efforts on shallow reefs to be extended to include deep reefs, as these ecosystems are often connected, and investment in research into deep reefs and their ecosystem services.

National, international, transnational cross-stakeholder collaborations should be developed to survey and conserve deep reefs in national and international (High Seas) waters, they say.

‘To halt and reverse nature loss, the UN Biodiversity Conference, COP15, must prioritise the conservation of unique ecosystems such as deep reefs, one of the least protected ecosystems on Earth.

‘We hope our recommendations and actions will be useful for decision-makers in the WIO, be applied within the new Western Indian Ocean regional policy and provide the springboard for deep reefs to become protected across the global ocean.’

Co-author, professor of Marine Biology at the University of Oxford, Nekton Principal Scientist

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