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Oceans need protection from scientists too

Unregulated research poses a serious threat to some unique marine environments.


Your News Feature “Sink or swim” (Nature 432, 12-14; 2004) reports that “conservation biologists generally agree” that unique marine habitats in the open sea require urgent protection. I assume that they mean from everyone except scientists. But academics also need to consider conservation when they plan research expeditions.

In 1994, as a PhD student participating in a British–Russian joint expedition to investigate the Trans-Atlantic Geotraverse hydrothermal vent site, I became concerned about the effects that scientific expeditions were having on these unusual habitats. My primary concern was that disturbance by submarines could be having unknown effects on the spectacular populations of endemic shrimp found around vent sites. My worries were later confirmed by the work of several colleagues who reported changes to the eyes of deep-sea vent shrimps caused by submersible illumination (P. J. Herring, E. Gaten and P. M. J. Shelton Nature 398, 116; 1999).

I spoke to a number of deep-sea biologists about my concerns and found many who agreed that better control and coordination of research expeditions was needed. Perhaps naively, I contacted a popular science magazine in the hope that I could start a campaign to embarrass the scientific establishment into better behaviour. Within a few days, a senior academic warned me that continuing to raise this issue would mean that I would probably never work in deep-sea science again and would be considered a firebrand rather than a serious scientist.

As an idealistic postgraduate, I found this response, and the lack of interest from the scientific press, disheartening.

Sadly, little has changed since then. In 2002, Canada identified Endeavour Hot Vents, off the country's pacific coast, as areas for official protection and conservation (see But after scientific groups raised concerns over freedom of access, officials at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans made it clear that it was their intention to encourage research at the site rather than restrict it.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature has recognized that one of the greatest threats to hydrothermal vents comes from ‘uncoordinated and unregulated’ research. When will scientists accept this fact?

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Johnson, M. Oceans need protection from scientists too. Nature 433, 105 (2005).

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