Yearbook of International Environmental Law - Vol. 7

By Günther Handl; Jutta Brunnée et al. | Go to book overview

XIII. SPECIAL REPORT

BIODIVERSITY IN THE DEEP SEABED

(1) Introduction

Today, there is still much uncertainty as to when exactly commercial deep seabed mining might begin.1 Until such time, other activities involving the deep seabed might, however, become an operational reality. This report discusses one such potential activity, the extraction and use of genetic material from deep seabed species, and reviews some of the associated international legal implications for the preservation of the biodiversity of the deep seabed, especially as regards hydrothermal vent areas.

Oases of life exist on the deep seabed, despite extreme conditions of cold, darkness, and high pressure. In 1977 it was discovered that animal communities live near warm water springs from tectonically active areas of the seabed (so-called hydrothermal vents). These communities exist notwithstanding the complete absence of sunlight and do not depend on plant photosynthesis for survival. Instead, the communities rely exclusively on the primary productivity of chemosynbacteria synthesizing organic compounds from carbon dioxide, and using energy derived from hydrogen sulfide dissolved in the hydrothermal fluid emanating from the vents.2 This fluid can reach temperatures of 1200° C before mixing with seawater.

About 236 species of microorganisms, fish, crustaceans, polychaetes, echinoderms, coelenterates, and mollusks have been found in hydrothermal vent areas. Among those, 223 were new discoveries. Due to their genetic material, these species, in particular microorganisms, are of great interest to biotechnology. As we know today, genes are the principal units of heredity: With genetic engineering techniques, a gene that determines a particular trait of one organism can be directly inserted into another, even if the two organisms are not from the same species.3 The possibility of using the genetic material that enables hydrothermal vents species to survive in extreme environmental conditions opens new horizons in the already promising field of genetic engineering.

No doubt, all these prospects have tremendous economic implications. But what is the present legal condition of hydrothermal vents species found on the

____________________
1
See 3 YbIEL295 ( 1992); 5 YbIEL227 ( 1994).
2
Lyle Glowka, The Deepest of Ironies: Genetic Resources, Marine Scientific Research, and the Area, in 12 OCEAN Y.B. 156 ( 1996). More information for this report has been taken from the study by Glowka.
3
See LYLE GLOWKA ET AL., A GUIDE TO THE CONVENTION ON BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY 19 ( 1994).

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