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Executive Summary for July 20th

In our weekly roundup, we report on news that deep coral reefs may not be “refuges” for shallow reefs as hoped and a new robotic device that can help scientists study deep-sea jellyfish.

Published on July 20, 2018 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Pope Francis’ Warning About Deep-Sea Mining

As delegates to the International Seabed Authority (ISA) on Tuesday discussed regulations to govern the mining of unique deep-sea habitats for valuable minerals, a man in black at the back of the assembly hall raised his hand to speak.

“I bring to you and the International Seabed Authority the greetings of Pope Francis,”  Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, told the seabed authority’s Council, the U.N.-chartered organization’s policymaking body. “In order to address best the substantial risks of deep sea mineral exploitation, the protection of human life and the marine environment must be assured before economic and commercial considerations.”

It was the first time that the Holy See, which has observer status at the ISA, had appeared at the organization’s annual meeting in Kingston, Jamaica. It was another sign of the growing attention being paid to deep-sea mining as the ISA accelerates efforts to write regulations to permit commercial exploitation of the ocean floor.

Auza acknowledged “the need for more mineral resources due to growing demand,” but urged the Council to prioritize preservation of deep-ocean ecosystems. “The very long time that the ocean environment needs to heal makes the consequences of mining activity quasi-permanent in nature,” he said.

Going Deep Probably Won’t Save Coral Reefs

Deeper “mesophotic” reefs aren’t the conservation refuges from climate change some scientists had hoped, a new study published in the journal Science has found.

As coral reef ecosystems decline, researchers have been looking to reefs that lie in deeper and cooler waters, usually around 50-150m (165-500ft) below the surface. These little-studied and little-explored reef ecosystems are sometimes thought to be possible refuges for species struggling to survive in warming reefs in shallow waters. Scientists, however, have debated how much this is really the case.

Led by Luiz Rocha, a coral reef fish ecologist at the California Academy of Sciences and coleader of the Hope for Reefs initiative, deep-diving scientists conducted one of the largest-ever visual surveys of deep-water reef fish and habitat. They discovered there was little overlap among species in deep and shallow zones as well as evidence that deeper zones are also suffering from destructive fishing, pollution and sedimentation.

“These observations suggest that the potential for deep reefs to act in a refuge capacity is far less than we have previously hoped, as mesophotic ecosystems are home to largely distinct and independent communities and may be affected by both human and natural disturbances as much as shallow reefs are,” wrote the scientists.

Grab That Jellyfish (Gently Please)

Jellyfish and many other deep-ocean creatures are hard for scientists to study, simply because they are so soft and thus hard to collect with conventional tools without destroying them. A new robotic device, inspired by Japanese origami, could help.

Designed to withstand the pressures of the deepest part of the seafloor and operate with a simple design, the RAD (rotary actuated dodecahedron) sampler can unfold itself and gently capture a jellyfish, squid or other small and soft sea creature without hurting it, shredding it or bringing it to the surface. The team, from the City University of New York’s Baruch College, Harvard University and the University of Rhode Island, tested the device at depths down to 700m using a remote-operated vehicle and successfully capturing a Stellamedusa jellyfish.

“We approach these animals as if they are works of art: would we cut pieces out of the Mona Lisa to study it?” David Gruber, a biologist at Baruch College, said in a statement. “No we’d use the most innovative tools available. These deep-sea organisms, some being thousands of years old, deserve to be treated with a similar gentleness.”

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