Only in the past few decades have scientists discovered remarkable new habitats in the
deep ocean. These include spectacular hydrothermal vents, cold seeps, cold-water coral
reefs that may be thousands of years old and seamounts.

Isolated submarine mountains and hills that rise several hundred meters or more above
the deep ocean floor without breaking the water's surface, seamounts are found
throughout the world’s oceans. Their unique features house a profusion of unusual and
endemic species, pools of largely undiscovered oceanic biodiversity, which often attract
deep-sea fish species from wide surrounding areas.

With the increasing depletion and collapse of more conventional fisheries in shallower,
coastal waters, industrial fishing fleets have begun targeting seamount ecosystems for
deep-sea species such as orange roughy which are now commonly sold in restaurants and
fish shops in Europe and North America. These fleets use bottom trawl nets which
destroy corals, sponges and numerous other unique species inhabiting seamount

With this picture in mind, a delegation of the IUCN Marine Programme attended two
international marine conferences: the United Nations Open-ended Informal Consultative
Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea (ICP) and the Defying Ocean’s End
Conference (DOE).

The United Nations ICP is an annual meeting involving governments, non-governmental
and intergovernmental organizations. Its purpose is to advise the United Nations General
Assembly on actions needed to address major problems facing the world’s oceans,
including new and emerging threats to the marine environment. This year the ICP (June
2-6 in New York) focused on ‘vulnerable marine ecosystems’ including seamounts, and
issues related to the safety of navigation.

Several representatives from IUCN attended the meeting and Matthew Gianni, from the
IUCN Marine Programme, was invited to make a presentation. He drew the attention of
the meeting to the need to protect the biodiversity of seamount ecosystems, particularly
on the high seas, and outlined the legal basis for action by the international community
with specific recommendations to UN ICP and the General Assembly.

Today, some 40% of the world’s trawling grounds are now in deep-sea waters. “Deep-sea
trawling involves the serial depletion of deep-sea fish stocks and has been shown to
destroy up to 95% of unique benthic communities associated with seamounts, inflicting
tremendous collateral damage on these rare and fragile ecosystems in the process,” said

Many deep sea species are slow-growing and long-lived, making depletion more rapid
and recovery much slower than in shallow water. “Altogether, there is a strong possibility
of species extinction in these ecosystems and an urgent need for the international
community to protect seamount environments now before many more are destroyed,” he

On a broader basis, Lee Kimball, on behalf of IUCN, expressed support for further
restraints on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing to protect vulnerable marine
ecosystems such as seamounts, particularly through regional fisheries organizations.
Based on many years of work on marine and coastal issues and a recent initiative on
marine protected areas in the high seas, the IUCN delegation also supported improved
international arrangements on marine pollution emergencies, efforts by the International

Seabed Authority to protect vulnerable deep sea environments from minerals activities,
and a future review by the ICP of progress made in establishing ecologically-coherent
marine protected area networks under international agreements, with particular emphasis
on coordinated approaches beyond national jurisdiction.

IUCN also distributed a statement on Seamount Biodiversity, Exploitation and
Conservation that was developed for the UN ICP at Conservation International’s DOE
Conference held in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, from May 29 to June 3. Kristina Gjerde,
IUCN Coordinator of the high seas marine protected areas initiative, played a major role
in developing this statement together with several prominent scientists from the New
England Aquarium, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the San Diego
Supercomputer Center based on a report prepared for the DOE Conference

As an outcome of the UN ICP meeting, a list of “agreed elements” or recommendations
have been forwarded to the UN General Assembly for consideration and possible
inclusion in the Assembly’s annual Resolution on Oceans and the Law of the Sea. The
list includes a recommendation to reiterate the call for urgent action to address the risks
to marine biodiversity of seamounts, cold water coral reefs and other underwater features.

The UN ICP also recommends that the General Assembly reaffirm States’ efforts to
develop diverse approaches to conserve and manage vulnerable marine ecosystems,
including the establishment of marine protected areas. In relation to seamounts and other
threatened ecosystems and biodiversity located in areas beyond national jurisdiction on
the high seas, it invites all international bodies to urgently consider how to use
international treaties and other relevant instruments to address threats and risks, to
identify priorities, and to explore a range of potential approaches and tools for this

IUCN delegates actively contributed to the proceedings of both conferences by offering
their expertise on seamount biodiversity, exploitation and conservation, and providing
suggestions and recommendations for enhancing the international legal framework for the
protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems.