Protecting Genetic Resources on the Deep Ocean Floor

The deep ocean is home to a diversity of life quite different from that found anywhere else on the planet. This makes it of real interest to bioprospectors. While commercial exploitation of deep sea genetic resources is a ways off still, such exploitaion could bring real problems, from the enclosure of genetic rights to the destruction of vulnerable deep sea habitat.

Sam Johnston, one of the authors of a new study on the issue, says it is precisely because deep sea bioprospecting is just getting started that the time is right to create a legal framework for its conduct: "We have a window of opportunity. The issues are much easier to deal with before commercial interests become heavily vested in the hunt for deep-sea genetic material."

But what can be done?

The study, Bioprospecting of Genetic Resources in the Deep Seabed -- produced by the United Nations University's Institute for Advanced Studies -- examines the various possibilities and pressures and proposes creating a new institution to safeguard the deep sea's biological treasures, possibly under UNCLOS:

Under the regime of common heritage of humankind, deep seabed genetic resources would not be subject to private appropriation, should only be used for peaceful purposes, and would be managed by an international institution. The benefits ensuing from the utilization of these resources should also be shared with humankind as a whole. ...

A new institution... could be set up with the mandate to adopt conservation measures, authorize or receive notification of access to deep seabed genetic resources, act as a focal point for the transfer of technology and information exchange, as well as the designated authority to receive samples of resources collected, negotiate benefit-sharing arrangements, and supervise a system of inspections...

International, public domain, deep sea eco-cops: that'd be a cool job. The Steve Zissou in me can easily imagine deep-dive submersibles with flashing police lights, chasing biopirates through the hot plumes and black smokers of the ocean floor...

This piece is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on Oct. 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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