A scientific expedition to explore life on undersea mountains – or seamounts – in the high seas south of Madagascar is setting out from Reunion Island on 23 April. The three-week-long expedition aboard the French Polar Institute’s research vessel Marion Dufresne will explore the fauna of the Walters Shoal seamount and its role in the surrounding ecosystem.
“Seamounts are islands of marine life with an important role in maintaining the health of the ocean. They contribute to food security by supporting fish stocks, and the unique species they harbour could provide genetic material for the development of future medicines. Yet they face increasing threats and remain largely unexplored. We urgently need more research into these hotspots of marine biodiversity or we risk losing species that we didn’t even know existed,” says François Simard, Deputy Director of IUCN’s Marine Programme.
The expedition is a key stage in an IUCN project aimed at the conservation and sustainable use of seamount ecosystems in the South West Indian Ocean. Seamounts are home to many endemic, slow-growing, slow-reproducing species, and are highly vulnerable to intense fishing practices such as bottom trawling. Both commercial and recreational fishing take place on Walters Shoal, including illegal fishing.
This is the third IUCN expedition to explore seamounts, and the first to Walters Shoal. While past expeditions concentrated solely on species inhabiting the seabed and the water, this one will gather extensive data on everything from plankton to seabirds and marine mammals to better understand how the seamount is linked to surrounding ecosystems.
Seamounts play an important and only partially understood role in marine ecosystems well beyond the seamounts themselves, and damage to them could have widespread effects on ocean health and fisheries.
These undersea mountains also have the potential to contribute to the development of new medicines through the use of marine genetic resources from the many unique species they support. Fewer than 300 out of the world’s 200,000 seamounts have been explored so far.
Like most seamounts, Walters Shoal lies within areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) – marine areas covered by fragmented legal frameworks which leave their biodiversity vulnerable to growing threats. By improving our understanding of seamount ecosystems, this project aims to inform on-going discussions towards an implementing agreement to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The planned arrival date in Durban, South Africa is 18 May, after three and a half weeks at sea.
The project is led by IUCN in partnership with the Muséum National de l’Histoire Naturelle (MNHN) and the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), and financed by the Fonds Français pour l’Environnement Mondial.
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