Caring for Life in Our Deep Oceans with Environmental Law Institute’s Dr. Kathryn Mengerink

August 11, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us today Doctor Kathryn Mengerink. She’s the Senior Attorney and Co-Director of the Ocean Program at the Environmental Law Institute. Welcome to Green is Good. DOCTOR KATHRYN MENGERINK: Thank you, John. It’s great to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Kathryn, you’re doing so many exciting things and we’re gonna be talking about the deep ocean today, a subject we’ve never covered on Green is Good before, but before we get talking about that, you have a fascinating background. First of all, you’re unbelievably educated. You have both your J.D. and your Ph.D., and your background is fascinating to me, and I would love you to share some of your journey and story with our listeners before we get talking about all the great work you’re doing at the Environmental Law Institute with regards to the deep ocean. DOCTOR KATHRYN MENGERINK: Oh, sure. I started off my career, my journey through school, interested in science broadly and zoology in particular and became passionate about marine biology when I spent a bit of summer and spring in a marine station in Florida and that led me to come out to Scripps Institution of Oceanography and get my Ph.D. in marine biology and I spent about six years studying sea urchins of all things. I spent a lot of time on the water and in the water and became really interested in marine conservation so I switched gears again and moved on to get a degree in environmental law and was lucky enough to land at the environmental law institute where they gave me the opportunity to establish an ocean program and we’ve been at it now for about eight years and it’s focused on science-based decision making and how we can support good management. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s fascinating, and we have never covered the issue of deep ocean before. In the last years, it seems like we’re talking more and more about the ocean with regards to how polluted we’ve made it, what we could do to make it better, what some solutions are, and what’s going on today so it’s so timely and it’s so important and I’m so thankful for your coming on the show today to talk about what you know and your great work at the Environmental Law Institute and for our listeners that want to follow along as we interview Kathryn today, if you want to go and check out her website and everything that’s going on at the Environmental Law Institute, please join me now because I’m on it. It’s a beautiful website. It’s www.ELI.org. Kathryn, let’s get right into it. Deep ocean — I’ve never heard that terminology before. I’ve heard a lot of other things with regards to the ocean. What is the deep ocean and how big is it and what does it really mean? DOCTOR KATHRYN MENGERINK: Sure, yeah. The deep ocean is, most scientists define it as an area below 200 meters in depth so think about a football field and that’s about 100 meters long so a couple hundred meters is two football fields below the surface. It’s also typically beyond the continental shelf so as you go under water, there’s the continental shelf, which is gradually getting deeper and deeper and then it drops off into the depths of the ocean. It is, in fact, the largest living space on earth because not only does the ocean itself make up 71% of the surface of the earth, but if you think about the ocean period, you’re talking about a three-dimensional living space so by far, the largest living space on earth and the average depth of our ocean is over 4,000 meters in depth, so most of the ocean is deep ocean. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, it’s the largest living space on earth, which already blows my mind in terms of vastness. Talk about what makes it so special then besides bigness. What are the key elements that you’re working on with regards to the deep ocean? What’s your focus and the Environmental Law Institute’s focus with regards to the needs of it and what we can do to make it a better place? DOCTOR KATHRYN MENGERINK: Sure, yeah. There’s a lot of things that make the deep ocean special. It’s a place of extreme, so it’s extreme size, extreme depth, extreme pressure, extreme darkness, and extreme unknown so I can unpackage that a little bit for you and help you think about some of the aspects of the deep ocean that make it special. We’ve talked about size. If you think about depth, the deepest part of the deep ocean is almost seven miles deep so that’s the Marianas Trench and think about Mount Everest. Mount Everest could fit inside of the Marianas Trench in terms of the depth so it’s deeper than Mount Everest is high. You’re talking about incredibly deep ocean and as you get deeper, pressure gets extreme so think about swimming to the bottom of a pool. You can feel the pressure on your ears. Swimming to the bottom of a deep ocean, it would be like holding something like 50 jumbo jets on top of you. That’s the kind of pressure that you’re talking about when you get to the deep ocean. Because of that, it is extremely challenging for scientists to access and work in the deep ocean. It’s a high cost for the technology to work in the deep ocean and there’s certainly substantial dangers to working at depth so while we rarely and only twice have sent people down to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, more typically, we send nets or remotely operated vehicles to go down and explore those deep depths but it makes it really challenging and so that’s another important aspect of what makes it special because this challenge means that we don’t know a lot about the deep ocean so there’s so much unknown. Some people have said that we know more about the moon than we know about the deep ocean. At the same time, the deep ocean is a really diverse place so it’s not a place where we have a single habitat. It’s not all one type of environment but there’s lots of different types of environments in the there have been amazing discoveries just in recent decades so we’re still learning really new things about the deep ocean and we like to think about these as the unknown unknowns and so what I mean by that is that 50 years ago, we didn’t know about hydrothermal vents and now we know that they are these amazing places where hot water is coming up into the ocean and you have these communities of crazy creatures that are living in these extreme environments and we have things like seamounts that are mountains under the water that have deep sea corals that are very different from shallow water corals that we see that host a variety of life so it’s a really special place. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Excuse my ignorance on this, but I know everything is interrelated and we’re all one big part of an ecosystem. What are the important issues regarding the deep ocean and uses of it and how does it interrelate with us above ground and how do you then tie the uses with our whole ecosystem together? What are you looking at on a regular basis and what are you trying to improve? DOCTOR KATHRYN MENGERINK: Yeah, so we’re interested in understanding what makes the deep ocean special and how we can effectively manage it. I’ve been involved with a group called the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative that is an international collaboration of scientists, policymakers and others who are people from industry, people from academia who are focused on thinking about how to effectively manage this space and to utilize it in a way that supports our life on earth so there’s a lot of things that we already derive from the deep ocean. We have fisheries that are getting deeper. The more that we exploit shallow water environments, the deeper we look for other types of materials so some of these fisheries- for example, seamount fisheries- have received a lot of pressure from fishermen and the challenge with that is that many of the fish on seamounts are slow growing so they can be over 100 years old and take a long time to reach maturity so when they’re fished and depleted, it means it’s going to be a long time, potentially longer than human lifetimes, for such populations to recover. Other types of activities that we have in the deep ocean include oil and gas development and the existing deepest well is something like 2,800 meters in depth and that’s more than a mile and a half beneath the surface and while the footprint of oil and gas development is small, done correctly, the impacts are minor, deep water horizon is an example, the oil spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, is an example of what happens when something goes wrong or can go wrong at depth and that was a deep ocean oil spill. A lot of our focus has been on the impacts to what’s happened along the coastline. Animals that have been oiled like pelicans and sea turtles or habitat that’s been disrupted like sea grasses or marshlands but a big part of the impact was in the deep ocean and we know very little about what was there to begin with and how that impacted those resources. Other existing uses of this deep ocean are things like waste deposition so in Norway, for instance, they’re putting mine tailings that are taken from land into the deep ocean as an alternative to depositing the waste on land. In terms of future use then, people are thinking about things like carbon storage so how do we store carbon dioxide? Maybe we can inject it into the deep ocean or deep sea diving, which is a big issue that people are thinking about right now as regulations are being put in place and people are starting to look towards mining the deep ocean. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners who have just joined us, we’ve got Doctor Kathryn Mengerink on with us today. She’s a Senior Attorney and Co-Director of the Ocean Program at the Environmental Law Institute. To learn more about all the great work she’s up to and her colleagues are up to, especially with regards to the deep ocean, please go to www.eli.org. I’m on the website now. It’s a beautiful website. There’s tons of information here. Let’s go back to impact. You know, you see all these specials now on television now, Kathryn, with regards to this sort of soupy plastic we’ve so hurt our ocean with, so impacted our ocean itself with. Is it safe to assume that this soupy, horrible, pollution mix of plastics that we’ve created in the ocean are now impacting also the deep ocean as well? DOCTOR KATHRYN MENGERINK: They’re certainly present there, and in fact, as part of my job, I actually do some work with Scripps Institution of Oceanography with their Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation and we had a master’s student this spring, Meredith Epp, who has developed an app and the app is her deep sea marine debris app and she’s requesting that scientists and others who are operating in the deep sea help identify debris in the ocean while they’re doing other types of research. So often, you hear anecdotally stories from various scientists talking when they were trawling or doing research in an area of the deep ocean that they’ve seen different types of marine debris and in fact, there was a study recently done near the Monterey Bay area that focused on the deep sea and marine debris down there and evaluating the types of things that you find in the deep ocean so it’s certainly down there. We’ve certainly made our mark. I think there’s a question now about what kind of effect does that type of marine debris have on the deep ocean and, like other things, our knowledge about that is very limited. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What I keep understanding from you is that this is still an ongoing journey of studying the deep ocean and that you’re in the middle of it with your colleagues. With regards to studying it, that’s one thing. Who manages it though? It’s, you say, the largest place on the planet, and really, in terms of its vastness and bigness, under whose domain does it fall and who’s in charge of it? DOCTOR KATHRYN MENGERINK: Yeah, so all nations actually have a role to play in managing the deep ocean, certainly all coastal nations and all nations involved with the law of the sea treaty. Deep ocean is both in national waters and in international waters so, for example, if you’re off the coast of California, you could be a couple miles out and beneath you is deep ocean so it can be that close to shore. In other places in the world, it’s much further, tens of miles off shore before you really start to see deep ocean but it is both an international and a national issue so each nation has a role to play in managing the deep ocean as well as international bodies. In terms of how then it’s managed, most nations, and in an international context, we manage things in a siloed way and what I mean by that is we manage specific activities on an agency-by-agency basis or on an institution by institution basis so if you’re looking at the United States, fisheries are managed by or in accordance with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Oil and gas leaking falls under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management so those things are separate and while there’s some interaction between different agencies, they’re really occurring in silos and that’s one of the big concerns from a management perspective is when we’re managing things on a one by one basis, we can really run into challenges because different decisions can affect things in different ways. In international waters, we see a similar situation. We have what’s called Regional Fishery Management Organizations and they manage the fish. We have the International Seabed Authority and it’s tasked with managing and leasing the deep seabed for deep sea minerals so in part, our challenge is how do we integrate management across these different sectors. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, if you were the boss for the day, like you could just wave your wand and make things better, what would you do to make the management more seamless and more comprehensive and get everybody on the same page? What would be your stroke of genius to pull this together? DOCTOR KATHRYN MENGERINK: There’s a few different approaches to potentially integrate management. People have been looking into and actually have been implementing what’s called marine spatial planning. That’s essentially a forward looking process that is supposed to be across agencies to make a plan for how to utilize a particular place and base decision making then on sort of like a land use plan. If you live in a city, you may have a plan for how to develop that city. We can do the same thing in the context of the ocean if we work collaboratively to decide how we want to utilize that space and the rationale for that is the you could imagine that for one agency that’s managing fish, for instance, they may want to protect an area because they recognize it as an important nursery ground so they may say no fishing in that area because we think it’s an important nursery to establish and make sure that the fishery is sustainable. At the same time, there may be another decision by the energy agency to exploit that area for some sort of energy development so we want to avoid that kind of thing. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right, right. That makes sense. Talk about mining in terms of deep ocean mining. We’re down to the last couple of minutes. Is that part of the future of the deep ocean and if it is, how do we do deep ocean mining without further degrading the deep ocean it destroying it or hurting it further? Is there a way to do it while being sensitive to the ecosystem of the deep ocean? DOCTOR KATHRYN MENGERINK: That’s a big challenge that we face so certainly people are interested in mining the deep ocean and we’ve increasingly seen interest in this so, for example, New Zealand, right now there’s a group that is interested in mining the Caltham Rocks Phosphate Site and have submitted and developed an environmental impact assessment for that area. In Papua New Guinea, there’s a company that’s already obtained a lease to mine on hydrothermal vents so there’s a lot of interest and efforts in that direction. There are right now in the international arena exploration leases so there’s companies out there looking at exploration and they’re now developing exploitation programs under the various agencies so that is up and coming. It’s an issue that is a very real issue that we have to address and in terms of the things that we think need to happen to address it, we need to put measures in place like protecting habitats, requiring appropriate environmental assessment, minimizing the impact to the region by avoiding special sites, by developing the right technology so that we’re not causing too much impact, but the big question and another important piece of it is to move with precaution and to be very precautious about how we move forward in the deep ocean because we have such little knowledge so we have to at the same time we are exploring the area and considering it for exploitation, we really need to focus on expanding our knowledge so we can make smart decisions. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s awesome, and Kathryn, thank you for coming on the show today and sharing so much about the deep ocean that I never knew, I’m sure our listeners never knew. We’d like to have you back on to continue this story. For our listeners out there that want to learn more about Kathryn and her colleagues’ great work, please go to the Environmental Law Institute’s website. It’s www.eli.org. I love the tagline; “Environmental Law Institute makes law work for people, places, and the planet.” Thank you, Kathryn, for being an inspiring sustainability deep ocean expert. You are truly living proof that green is good.