Q: How did your interest in oceans first come about? Was there a moment or experience that led to you wanting to pursue a career in marine science?
AR: Yes, my mother was Irish and her family were fishermen on the West coast of Ireland. I used to go over to Ireland every year during the summer on holidays and we would go out on the boats fishing for lobster mainly, but also occasionally for crayfish. I spent countless hours on the beach and on nearby rocky shores, rock-pooling, so that’s where my interest came from initially. As a result, at the age of 12, I decided that I wanted to become a marine biologist.
Q: What do you consider, broadly, to be the most urgent current challenges for marine conservation?
AR: Well, probably the most urgent issues for the ocean, currently, are climate change impacts, from temperature rise, acidification and de-oxygenation (which is the one that people often forget). Those are closely followed by overfishing and destructive fishing impacts and then there’s a host of other things, including marine debris, plastics, pollution, invasive species, development, habitat destruction… the list goes on.
Q: Many of these challenges seem to apply to the ocean in its entirety, yet, understandably, the focus for conservation is often on discreet types of ecosystem or threat – coral reefs, bycatch, overfishing etc. Do you think we need to think more of the ocean as one whole living system whose various regions, habitats and species are all interconnected?
AR: What connects those systems and threats, and what makes us talk about one ocean, rather than lots of oceans, is simply the biology. Many organisms use the entire ocean over the course of a year just in their normal lifecycle. Tuna, turtles, whales and so on migrate across vast areas of the ocean, moving into Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and back out into the High Seas, moving between spawning and feeding grounds.
Different habitats will be important to them during different parts of the year. For example, animals might spawn over seamounts during certain parts of the year, but at other times be more widely dispersed along continental slopes. It’s only humans that draw lines on maps of the ocean – marine life certainly does not do that! In fact, the same thing applies to global fishing fleets now, which operate both in the High Seas and in EEZs.
Climate change is a global issue which affects shallow and deep water ecosystems alike. The only difference is that we know much less about the potential impacts on deep water ecosystems. So, when I talk about ocean, I do tend to talk about ocean (singular) rather than oceans, because they are completely connected.
Q: How helpful do you think the current focus on plastics has been in getting the message across about it all being one ocean? Do you think the fact that plastic bottles are turning up – along with microplastics – in the deepest and most inaccessible regions of the ocean helps to highlight the extent to which it is all connected?
AR: Absolutely. We discovered plastics in the deep ocean. In the Southwest Indian Ocean, which is one of the most remote parts of the ocean – between Madagascar and the Antarctic – down to depths of 1500 metres we found microplastic fibres in all the sediment samples and even all over and inside the animals. That’s a clear indicator that human contamination is pretty much ubiquitous in the ocean. In fact, I think Greenpeace have recently released a report where they’ve found microplastics in the Southern Ocean in Antarctica!
Beach at Kanapou Bay, Hawaii. Image © NOAA News 2013 September 4
Q: What do you think is behind the sudden surge in momentum and interest in marine plastics, and can we learn anything from it?
AR: Well, I think one of the key things for marine plastics has been Blue Planet II, which I advised on. The final programme in the series, where they spoke about plastics for some reason really seemed to hit home. That was doing the classic BBC thing of show and tell – showing the beautiful and fascinating ocean but then at the end having somebody who is a world recognised figure in terms of natural history broadcasting sitting there and saying we’ve got some serious problems and we need to do something about it quickly. That just seemed to be the right moment. I think running up to that moment there had been some momentum around marine plastics, but what Blue Planet II did so well was reinforce aspects of the problem very clearly and bring it home to people. That was a key moment, I think.
Paragorgia arborea, sometimes known as ‘bubblegum coral’ grows at depths below 200m, so is rarely seen.
Q: A lot of your work is on deep sea ecosystems. Of the small amount of news that filters out into the mainstream media, it seems that hydrothermal vents get most of the attention. Is there another type of deep ocean ecosystem or feature that you think we need to understand better if we want to conserve marine biodiversity?
AR: Yes – pretty much all of it really! Take seamounts, for example. We’ve probably only looked at something like 0.002 per cent of seamounts and we desperately need to develop a much better knowledge base to understand how to manage human exploitation of these ecosystems. They are vitally important foraging areas for a lot of large ocean predators such as sharks, seabirds and whales. They are used as navigational waypoints by animals like turtles, as spawning grounds by species such as freshwater eels. They are very rich ecosystems – biodiversity hotspots – in themselves.
In terms of threats, deep-sea bottom trawling is one activity that is ongoing, but now we’re also looking at activities like the mining of cobalt crusts from seamounts, so seamounts are a very good example of where we need more knowledge. Having said that, there really isn’t any area of the deep sea that is well studied.
Q: In terms of high and low points in your career in marine science, what have been the most satisfying experiences for you, personally, and on the flip side, the most frustrating things you’ve experienced?
AR: Well, I guess one of the high points of my scientific career was probably leading the expedition in 2010 which described the communities around the first deep sea hydrothermal vents found in the Southern Ocean. That was just the most incredible voyage. We discovered these astonishing vent communities which looked like no others that had ever been found. Huge heaps of Yeti crabs, lying around these vents which were billowing fluids up to 386 degrees centigrade. Heaps of snails, clumps of stalk barnacles and basically every single element of that community was new to science, not just at the species level but also at the genus and even family level. That was a truly amazing trip…