Biologists do not pose a threat to deep-sea vents

Sir

Magnus Johnson suggests, in Correspondence (“Oceans need protection from scientists too” Nature 433, 105; 2005 10.1038/433105a), that “uncoordinated and unregulated” research is one of the greatest threats to hydrothermal vent habitats. We offer information to the contrary. Furthermore, we suggest that the vent-research community is unusually well-organized internationally to examine the effects of researcher activities and to implement a code of conduct.

As with most field studies, it is possible to cite examples of overexuberant sampling, especially in the years following the discovery of vents. But potential effects of sampling were recognized early (V. J. Tunnicliffe Geophys. Res. 95, 12961–12966; 1990) and researchers at vents are proactive in developing mechanisms to reduce sampling effects.

Although it is true that the main effects on hydrothermal vents come from scientists because the only visitors at vents are scientists, today much more emphasis is placed on management and conservation to reduce the collection of organisms. Many known vents are no longer sampled and effort is concentrated at a few sites.

The current ethos of vent marine scientists is evident in the activities of the Biogeography of Chemosynthetic Ecosytems (ChEss) programme (http://www.soc.soton.ac.uk/chess) within the ‘census of marine life’ initiative. ChEss helped to convene a fact-finding workshop on hydrothermal ecosystems with the United Nations' International Seabed Authority (ISA) last September. The ISA is responsible for developing the legislation required to ensure and provide for responsible and sustainable activity throughout the world's deep-ocean environments. There is also a draft Code of Conduct pending approval by InterRidge (http://www.interridge.org), the office that coordinates international studies on mid-ocean ridges.

Canada's Endeavour Hot Vents Marine Protected Area, which Johnson highlights, was established with the strong support of scientists. Examine the website that Johnson cites to see that there are ‘zones’ of activities — including ‘No Sample’ areas. Johnson's comment that a senior scientist advised him not to complain is a sad one. Any discipline needs to keep its ears open to possible abuse as well as ensuring responsible reporting of the facts.

We have worked as scientists on many aspects of deep-sea oceanography for nearly 30 years and share all concerns about damage to that environment. The lessons we have learned at hydrothermal vents are ones that we now apply at other chemosynthetically driven ecosystems, such as cold seeps and whale falls.

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Signed on behalf of 18 international members of the ChEss programme steering group

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Tyler, P., German, C. & Tunnicliffe, V. Biologists do not pose a threat to deep-sea vents. Nature 434, 18 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/434018b

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