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Case Study Report: The Deep Ocean

The deep ocean does not immediately spring to mind when wilderness is discussed. The picture is more often of deserts, the tundra, and the polar ice caps. However, this environment fits perfectly the definition of a wilderness used by the US, "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain" (US Congress, 1964). As A. F. Spilhaus said after the Apollo missions, less is known about it than the moon. The deep ocean is often considered to be that area away from the slope of the continental shelf: the abyssal plain and oceanic ridges and abysses. These lie at varying depths, but all are in the aphotic zone, where no light penetrates, roughly 1km down. This area makes up more than 60% of the earths surface (Kunich, J.C., 2006, p. 9). Alternatively, we could consider the broader definition of the US navy (Department of the Navy, 2006, p. 36), that consider the "deep layer" to be the area below the thermocline, the division between warmer surface waters and the cool, dark ocean below. The depth of the thermocline is generally around 200m. Below it, the ocean is characterised by a nearly constant temperature. Since at this depth light is too dim to support photosynthesis, the ecology of this region has more in common with the abyssal depths below than with the warm, bright waters above. From an economic point of view, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation states "There is no rigorous definition of a deep-water fishery, but in general, they occur in depths of at least 500m" (Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2006)

The extreme nature of this environment has led to it evolving unique ecosystems. Until the mid-1800s it was assumed to be a barren waste, as calculations of the immense pressures at depth led to the belief that no life could exist there. This view has been continually revised, as life has been discovered deeper and deeper. Recently, distinct, specialised ecosystems have been discovered at "whale falls", the bodies of whales that have sunk to the ocean floor. These are thriving, isolated environments providing an ecological niche for 407 known species, each one lasting over 100 years. It is estimated that there may be 850,000 such locations, on average 12km apart.

Assessment of the environmental impact of drilling waste is ongoing, but the consensus appears to be that while it can have major toxic effects on deep marine life, the severity of the effect is strongly dependent on the local conditions. Existing offshore drilling waste treatment guidelines tend to be generic and only consider the properties of the discharge from a platform. Some discharge conditions may be acceptable at one location but not at another (Milligan et al, 2003).

It is informative to compare these two industries exploiting resources of the deep ocean. Fishing is a historic industry supporting coastal communities around the world. The advent of industrialised fishing resulted rapidly in over-exploitation of fish stocks both in shallow and Deep Ocean. The difficulty in controlling the economic and environmental effects of this phenomenon arises from competition between nations and fisheries to maximise exploitation of what is essentially a shared resource, coupled with a difficulty in controlling a rapid expansion of production in a traditional, historic industry. In contrast, offshore oil drilling is a relatively modern phenomenon, carried out by large multinationals. Mineral rights have been historically better defined than fisheries rights, and the development of deep offshore drilling has formalised much of the previously disputed or loosely defined "territorial waters". Since environmental disruption from offshore drilling has been accused of detrimental effects on fish stocks, an industry already under immense pressure from depletion of its resource has watched closely for any further damage caused by this activity. As these large multinational companies are usually operating in partnership with the national government, if they are not actually a nationalised company, there is significant contractual control over their activities. Since governments have no interest in further damaging the already failing fishing industry, environmental campaigns have been taken seriously. Public concerns about possible contamination of the deep marine food chain by oil drilling have led to significant research on the problem and regulation by governments. The high profitability of oil extraction seems unlikely to diminish, and under these circumstances companies have significant interest in minimising negative perceptions of themselves due to perceived environmental damage. This can be contrasted with the fishing industry, which appears to be in severe danger of overexploiting its resource due to an inability to reduce production significantly enough to allow stocks to recover.

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