Emerging technologies for exploration and independent monitoring of seafloor extraction in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction

[The following is a transcript from a talk I gave at the 2019 Minerals, Materials, and Society Symposium at the University of Delaware in August, 2019. It has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Good afternoon and thank you all for coming. I want to change tracks for a bit and scan the horizon to think about what the future of exploration and monitoring in the high seas might look like because ocean and conservation technology is in the midst of an evolutionary shift in who has access to the tools necessary to observe the deep ocean.

This is the Area. Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, International Waters, the High Seas, the Outlaw Ocean. It’s the portion of the ocean that falls outside of national EEZs and is held in trust by the UN under the Convention on the Law of the Sea as the Common Heritage of Humankind. It covers 64% of the ocean and nearly half of the total surface of the Earth. It’s also the region in which most major deep-sea mining ventures intend to operate.

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Egosystem management. Or how tantrums and unprofessional behavior are hindering conservation

In helping to organize several meetings and events for conservation groups, I’ve frequently encountered conservation professionals loudly declaiming “Don’t you know who I am!” and expecting special treatment. Recently I got an email from someone whose abstract was rejected by a conference committee I was assisting, in which they had quite a tantrum. There were lots of exclamation marks and capital letters saying that it was unfair they were rejected and they will never ever go again to any meetings by this professional society and will resign their membership. I was asked by someone outside the conservation field whether it was usual that we get such childish and temperamental responses to rejections. Sadly we often do – whether it be rejections for journals, jobs or conference presentations.

However, I also told that person that anyone who’s been an academic for a while gets used to being rejected. Few papers get accepted at first submission, for example. So most conservation professionals take it in their stride. Moreover, anyone who is in the conservation field should really get used to difficulties and failures, as these are all too frequently components of the job. A conservation biologist is not going to last long if they go berserk at the least slight or hard knock or have a fragile ego. Conservation is often about conflict, and trying to resolve this conflict through reasoned argument, understanding and diplomacy. You often get knocked down, but to quote Chumbawumba, you just have to “get up again”.

As a result, one could reach the conclusion that someone who is really childish, temperamental, rude etc. should not last long in real-world conservation. Sadly, such tantrum-throwing individuals may last longer, or even thrive, in academia, but that’s another story. However, that person will be a horror for colleagues in the field. So for the case above, resigning from a society or refusing to go to conservation meetings is like natural selection, weeding the weak and unfit from the gene pool. If they are going to ditch going to premiere meetings to learn the latest cutting-edge conservation and science over a run-of-the-mill abstract rejection, then it’s their loss and frankly our gain…

However, despite the potential forces of natural selection, inflated – yet fragile – egomaniacal bloviates are still all too common in the conservation world. There are several major marine conservation initiatives that foundered because, for example, coalitions would not let certain organizations have top billing in materials, and the thwarted organizations walked away, taking their essential funding with them. Others would not cooperate with conservation academics from a competing institution, and held back essential information and resources, causing the project to collapse. Frequently managing a conservation project is more about managing the egos of collaborators, or the egos of their organisations, rather than managing the actual project itself. This type of “human resources” management is, unfortunately, a skill in which few conservation professionals receive any training. Too frequently these days, in order to achieve conservation success, you have to first manage the ego-system, before finally getting down to efforts to restore the eco-system.

Bot meets Whale: making friends in the ocean; or how I learned to stop worrying and mitigate harmful interactions between recreational ROVs and marine mammals.

An example of a microROV system. From Thaler et al. (2019)

Today, there are more robots exploring the ocean than ever before. From autonomous ocean-crossing gliders to massive industrial remotely operated vehicles to new tools for science and exploration that open new windows into the abyss, underwater robots are giving people a change to experience the ocean like never before. The fastest growing sector of this new robotic frontier? Small, recreational, observation class ROVs.

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A global assessment of biodiversity and research effort at active Seafloor Massive Sulphides: Transcript from my talk at the International Seabed Authority.

[The following is a transcript from a talk I gave at a side event during Part II of the 25th Session of the International Seabed Authority in July, 2019. It has been lightly edited for clarity.]

I want to change gears this afternoon and talk about a very different kind of mining. For the last two years, Diva and I have been engaged in a data mining project to discover what we can learn and what we still need to learn about biodiversity at hydrothermal vents from the 40-year history of ocean exploration in the deep sea.

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A big-hearted iron snail is the first deep-sea species to be declared endangered due to seabed mining.

[Note: this article originally appeared on the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is republished here with permission.]

In 2001, on an expedition to hydrothermal vent fields in the Indian Ocean, researchers made a bizarre discovery. Clustered in small aggregations around the base of a black smoker was an unusual snail, seemingly clad in a suit of armor. Rather than a single, hard, calcareous structure, the snail’s operculum was covered in a series of tough plates. On recovery to the surface, those plates, as well as the snail’s heavy shell, began to rust. This was an Iron Snail.

Individuals from the three known populations of C. squamiferum: Kairei, Longqi, Solitaire (left to right). Chong Chen.
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Research expedition: what ever happened to the world’s first certified sustainable shark fishery?

My Postdoctoral research has focused on understanding the causes and consequences of public misunderstanding about shark fisheries management. While scientists overwhelmingly support sustainable fisheries management as a solution to shark overfishing, many concerned citizens and conservation activists prefer total bans on all shark fishing and trade. Some go so far as to (wrongly) claim that sustainable shark fisheries cannot exist even in theory and do not exist in practice anywhere in the world, and that bans are the only possible solution.

There’s an important piece of data that very rarely makes it into these discussions. Amidst the ongoing discussions about whether or not sustainable shark fisheries are even possible, one right in my backyard became the first shark fishery anywhere in the world to be certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

However, a few years after BC’s spiny dogfish fishery got certified, the certification was quietly withdrawn. I couldn’t find any information in the MSC reports, or in associated scientific literature or government reports, that explained what happened to this fishery, which was thriving until recently. No scientists, managers, or conservation advocates who I asked about this knew exactly what happened to BC’s spiny dogfish fishery.

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Everything you need to know about conservation you can learn from Alien(s)

As a provider of advice on how to do effective conservation, Southern Fried Science has previously looked to such as The Game of Thrones for inspiration. Today we look at another famous source of conservation tips: Alien (and Aliens)…

A single charismatic animal can be a great motivator for action.

Jones the cat

Scientists sometimes have self interests that can derail a project.

Science officer Ash

Just when you think everything is going ok a crisis hits…

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ACTION ALERT: Protect Florida sharks from harmful fishing practices

After years of scientists and conservationists complaining about problems with common land-based shark fishing practices, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is finally taking action! At their April meeting, FWC formally announced that they are considering revising regulations governing this activity with the goal of restricting the unnecessary and cruel handling practices that result in killing protected species of sharks.

(For background on this topic, please read my detailed open letter, or this summary of my research).

Here are the options that FWC is considering.

Examples of unequivocally illegal shark fishing from Shiffman and Friends 2017

 

How can you help? Either physically attend a workshop or send a formal comment online!

 

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I asked 15 ocean plastic pollution experts about the Ocean Cleanup project, and they have concerns

The online ocean science community has been vocally skeptical about the Ocean Cleanup, a device that aims to physically remove plastic pollution from the ocean. Drs. Kim Martini and Miriam Goldstein published a technical review of its feasibility over at Deep Sea News, and Andrew asked some important questions that have yet to be answered. Also, be sure to read environmental journalist Chris Clarke’s thorough overview of these concerns.

Overall concerns include a lack of understanding of the problem (including but not limited to the fact that much of the harmful ocean plastic is small and well-dispersed), insufficient structural integrity for a large object that will be deployed in the open ocean (which would result in the object breaking and creating even more ocean garbage), and the fact that this device is designed to aggregate objects of a certain size to remove them from the water but cannot distinguish between plastic and living things.

Mainstream media coverage has been noticeably less critical of the Ocean Cleanup, often presenting the idea as revolutionary and it’s creator as a genius.

Artist’s conception of the Ocean Cleanup, from TheOceanCleanup.com

I am not an expert in ocean plastic pollution. However, the uncritical tone of most mainstream media coverage of the Ocean Cleanup does not seem to correspond with my impression of expert opinion on this matter from speaking with expert colleagues who study this.

Through professional contacts, I developed a list of 51 ocean plastic pollution experts who work in academia, government, and the environmental non-profit sector, and I sent them some questions about the Ocean Cleanup. 15 (4 in academia, 5 each in government and the non-profit sector, and 1 in industry) agreed to participate in an anonymous survey. While this is not (and not intended to be) an exhaustive survey of the entire field of ocean plastic pollution, the broad agreement among a diverse group of experts is telling. Below, please see what they had to say through some representative quotes. Some respondents chose to provide an on-the-record quote, while many chose to remain anonymous out of concerns about reprisal.

I also asked Lonneke Holierhoek, COO of the Ocean Cleanup, to respond to these concerns. Her comments are included in each section.

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Things that go “POP!” in the deep: crushed cups, whole cans, and seafloor spam.

This week, two questions echoed through the hallowed halls of Deep-sea Science. It began, as things these days tend to begin, with a tweet. Dr. Diva Amon challenged deep-sea researchers to show off their shrunken cups from the bottom of the abyss. And we obliged, oh but did we oblige.

Concurrently, though unrelated, Angelo Villagomez announced out symposium on Human Impacts in the Deep Sea and shared several image of the garbage that finds its way to the ocean floor. Cans of cheap beer and pristine Spam littered the deepest reaches of the Mariana Trench, where they will lie forever as they are slowly buried in sediment.

And thus we found ourselves awash in to variations on the same theme: Why did that ocean thing get crushed? and Why didn’t that ocean thing get crushed? Read More