Probably the most comprehensive description of our offshore biological resources, which includes both bathyal and true abyssal faunas, is contained in ‘Les profondeurs de la mer,’ the results of more than 30 years observations by the French scientist Le Danois (1948). Foreign researchers have assembled more recent data about faunal biodiversity in Irish waters and groups participating in national (e.g. Rice et al. 1991) or EU MAST (e.g. OMEX and ENAM) funded programmes. Since the inception of the State, deep-sea research by Irish scientists has traditionally been hampered by the lack of a national ocean going research vessel. While foreign research cruises have afforded an opportunity to Irish scientists, very little work has been done with the exception of John Patching’s deep-sea microbiology work over the last 20 years in National University of Ireland, Galway. The new surveys of the Irish continental shelf (Marine Institute, personal communication) represents a unique opportunity to redress the lack of national effort and implement some biodiversity actions in the offshore sphere. Currently developing integrated mapping techniques will facilitate the production of predicted biotope distributions with a high level of accuracy. Irish capacity in this area, therefore, should be developed.
The recent discovery of extensive fields of carbonate mounds and cold coral reefs off the west coast of Ireland is of global significance. This hitherto poorly known ecosystem may rival the discovery of hydrothermal vents in terms of potentially unique geosphere-biosphere interactions. The reefs, found between 600 and 1000m, also support an extremely high associated biodiversity. This high biodiversity and the adaptations of the fauna to life in such a deep and dark environment suggest a great potential to discover biocompounds previously unknown to man. Increasing economic activity in the form of deep-sea fishing and oil and gas exploration, however, may be a threat to the corals. There is a pressing need to develop and enforce sustainable management practices for such a valuable offshore resource. The Norwegian government, for example, has prohibited (through legislation) the use of bottom trawling in the vicinity of some reefs. Recently in court, Greenpeace have succeeded in forcing the British Government to protect the corals through the application of the EU Habitats Directive beyond their 12 mile limit.
Recognising the importance of this ecosystem in Irish waters, a joint Marine Institute/MRI, NUIG workshop was held in January 1999 to ensure Irish participation in the formulation of EU Fifth Framework research proposals focused on carbonate mound and cold coral reef research. This successful venture yielded three funded projects, one of which, the Atlantic Coral Ecosystem Study (ACES), has a considerable biodiversity component both in terms of species identification/enumeration and in dealing with offshore conservation issues. The sensitivity and vulnerability of the coral ecosystem will be addressed and will lead to recommendations about sustainable use. It is likely that these recommendations will include site selection and zoning criterion for MPA’s (Marine Protected Areas), particularly multi-user MPA’s. This project which begins early in 2000 will serve as a primer for offshore management and focus attention on biodiversity issues including conservation, exploitation and management.
Some suggested actions
• Determine to what degree Ireland can legislate and enforce legislation beyond the 12-mile limit, within the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) provided for under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and rights ceded under the EU Common Fisheries Policy.
• Investigate the management potential of multi-user MPA’s as a method of zoning economic activities and prepare draft legislation to implement them.
• Support the National Seabed Survey and commit resources to developing Irish capacity for integrated mapping to facilitate comprehensive classification of Ireland’s offshore biotopes.
• Commit resources to developing Irish capacity in deep-sea species identification and curation as a supporting measure for the development of a comprehensive national biocompound screening programme.
• Introduce measures to regulate foreign exploitation of Irish biological resources.