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News Navigator: What's being done to protect deep sea creatures?

Coral grows in the deep sea in this picture provided by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about the conservation of deep sea creatures, amid increasing concern worldwide for the state of our oceans against multiple threats to ecosystems.

Question: I hear there's been a new conservation area set up to protect creatures living deep under the sea. What does this mean?

Answer: It's a conservation area in accordance with the guidelines set out by the U.N.'s Convention of Biological Diversity, designed to protect creatures living in the deep sea from activities like mineral excavations and trawling. Deep sea refers to an area where the seabed is 200 meters or more from sea level and far away from coastal areas.

In some cases, this means that companies and fishermen can carry out operations provided they cooperate with a notification system, meaning companies must report their activities in the conserved space. In other places where there is a need for strong conservation measures to be taken, businesses will have to receive permission to do any work in the area. The first deep sea conservation area is currently set to be established in the Pacific Ocean, off of the Ogasawara Islands south of Tokyo proper.

Q: But why do all of this for the deep sea?

A: The deep sea is a harsh place. Sunlight barely reaches it, the pressure exerted from the water above is very high, and temperatures are low. The kind of creature that can survive in those conditions is markedly different from those on land or in shallow waters, and so too is their ecosystem.

Q: Are the creatures there really that important?

A: Places like undersea volcanoes and ocean trenches are some of the most severe environments on Earth. To survive, some creatures down there have very special genetic material. The genes they carry could be useful in the development of new drugs and medicine. What's more, depending on their rarity, some coral and animals found in these environments can fetch a high price. The ecosystem deep under the sea has taken millions of years to reach its current point; if we let it fall apart, recovering it will be very difficult.

Q: Hasn't there been a conservation area up until now?

A: Until now, there have been conservation areas set up for waters near the coast. These areas comprise about 8.3 percent of Japan's waters. All countries with a maritime border have a global target to put at least 10 percent of their waters under conservation measures by 2020. The Ministry of the Environment is attempting to fulfill this goal through the establishment of deep sea conservation zones.

Q: So protection for these creatures is getting a lot better, then?

A: That's not necessarily the case. The Convention on Biological Diversity's aim is to protect biodiversity and continuously use its bounty. Current conservation areas in Japan are set up mainly to maintain fish stocks and put limits on the fishing industry, but environmental groups are asking if the ecosystem is really being protected by this. We hope the government to put in place conservation areas with more effective measures.

(Japanese original by Suzuko Araki, Science & Environment News Department)

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