There are huge untapped resources of protein in the deep sea, but any potential exploitation should be done with caution, states the research community. An international research group, led by AZTI researcher Xabier Irigoien, last year estimated that the so-called twilight zone (200 to 1,000 meters), maintains a community of fish, squid and crustaceans whose biomass far surpasses all the world’s current fisheries. Furthermore, it is currently estimated that there are more than 1 million undescribed species in the twilight zone. According to the study, the twilight zone contains up to 90 percent of the world’s total fish biomass. There are so many creatures here that if estimates hold, it would be equivalent to 1.3 tons of fish biomass per person on earth, and that excludes squid and krill.
Consequently, life in the twilight zone constitutes a huge potential source of fishmeal and Omega 3 fatty acids needed to feed the world population. However, it exists in a kind of “no man’s water“, where there are no rules for fishing. Critical for assessing the resilience of the community and thus develop sustainable management strategies is a lack of understanding of the biological processes in the twilight zone making it impossible to accurately estimate the fishing pressure the stocks can sustain.
In a Perspectives article in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science an international group of researchers from Denmark, UK, Portugal and Spain, including two AZTI researchers, raise a warning flag that a better understanding of the role of this community in the preservation of biodiversity and its influence on climate regulation is required if the Twilight Zone community, presently one of the most understudied regions in the world oceans, is to be exploited in a sustainable manner.
In order to define the limits of sustainable exploitation of this community, fundamental knowledge is needed on everything from population biology and controls on recruitment success to its role in the food web and for climate regulation. The community provides food for other key species, such as tuna and sharks however the importance of this community in the food web is not yet fully quantified. Furthermore, the mesopelagic community plays an important role in climate regulation. During their daily migration to the upper layers to feed, mesopelagic species feed on plankton, but release carbon at depth. The result is an additional mechanism for fast transport of carbon from the atmosphere to the ocean`s interior, dampening CO2`s contribution to global warming.
At present, there is no major fishing effort on this community although test fisheries are in progress. Existing techniques are marginally economically when the resource is used for fish meal, however the high essential fatty acid content of some species will make exploitation more economically viable, suggest the authors.
Lead author, oceanographer Professor Michael St. John, from DTU Aqua in Denmark, says :
“As coastal stocks are overexploited, alternative marine resources in the twilight zone will be of growing interest. There have already been several attempts to exploit the mesopelagic community and the fear is that it may lead to an unregulated “gold rush”, as soon as the technology is available and the cost justified. Therefore, the world community is faced with a major challenge. Of all the research I’ve done in my career, this is the most important issue, of that I’m sure.”
BOX: Life in the twilight zone
The Twilight zone is the zone in the sea, where daylight can not reach. The most common fish here are lanternfish with one species of BristlemouthCyclothone, considered tobe the most abundant vertebrate species on the planet. These fish are commonly called Myctophiids of which there are 245 species, 10-15 cm long fish, which are found throughout the ocean.
Together with squid and crustaceans, they can be detected by acoustic surveys 500 meters under the surface over large areas during the day. At night they migrate to the surface to feed.
St. John MA, Borja A, G Chust, Heath M, Grigorov I, Martin AP, Serrão Santos R and P Mariani (2016). A Dark Hole in our Understanding of Marine Ecosystems and its Services: Perspectives from the mesopelagic community, Front. Mar. Sci. 3:31. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2016.00031