The deep sea is often viewed of as a dark and remote place, yet the deep ocean and sea floor are home to a wide variety of fascinating marine organisms that have a profound influence on our lives through the ecosystem services they provide. In fact, the deep sea is home to many commercial fish species like Atlantic cod and Greenland halibut. Furthermore, the deep sea floor houses deep sea coral reefs and sponge gardens which are essential spawning, nursery, breeding, and feeding grounds for numerous organisms, including commercial fish and seafood. The impressive biodiversity supported by these ecosystems is not only visually stunning, some of the diverse organisms living in these environments produce unique chemical compounds with great potential for new medicines. For example, chemicals produced by some deep sea sponges have been shown to have great potential in treating cancer. As much of the deep sea floor remains unmapped, who knows what other wonders of nature lie hidden below the waves.
Unfortunately, climate driven changes in the deep sea environment like seawater acidification, warming, loss of oxygen and decreased food availability at the seafloor as well as human activities such as destructive fishing practices, overfishing, oil and gas exploration, oil spills, deep sea mining and increasing amounts of marine litter are threatening these fragile deep sea ecosystems and the services they provide. As such, there is an urgent need for a sustainable management of the deep sea that balances the societal needs as well as ensuring the long-term survival of these vulnerable ecosystems. To address this need, the Horizon 2020 ATLAS project has been exploring the deep North Atlantic to “improve our understanding of how deep ocean ecosystems function, their roles as reservoirs of biodiversity and genetic resources, and their health under future scenarios of climate change and human use.”
Area-based conservation measures like marine protected areas are key tools to protect the vulnerable deep sea ecosystems. However, these measures should be located in the best areas for conserving the ecosystems efficiently and in the long-term, and if possible, should have a minimal economic impact on human activities like fishing, deep sea mining, etc. This Map of the Week shows the priority areas for conservation of several vulnerable marine ecosystems and commercial fish species in the deep sea, taking into account the predicted change in habitat under a business-as-usual climate change scenario, the connectivity between different areas as well as the economic implications for human activities like fishing and deep sea mining. This prioritization aims to inform marine spatial planning and conservation initiatives for the deep North Atlantic.