An Interview with marine ecologist Professor Alex Rogers

By |2019-04-08T07:19:28+00:00September 21st, 2018|Biodiversity, Coastal Ecosystems, Coral Reefs, Fisheries, Interviews, Ocean, Oceans|Comments Off on An Interview with marine ecologist Professor Alex Rogers

Professor Alex Rogers is a marine ecologist. He is specifically interested in where life is distributed in the ocean and what drives that distribution. His work has a specific focus on biodiversity hotspots, mainly in the deep ocean, but also in tropical coral reefs, particularly deep tropical coral reefs. He does a lot of work related to policy and has recently been concentrating on policy around deep-sea mining and deep-sea fisheries, as well as the new implementation stage of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, for which negotiations began in September, 2018.

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…

Riftia pachyptila tube worms, found around hydrothermal vents. (NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Galapagos Rift Expedition 2011)

Conversely, the low point that I remember beyond most others is probably when the Copenhagen climate meeting took place. We put a huge amount of preparation into that, to make the case as scientists. We held a meeting on the impacts of climate change on coral reefs with some of the top experts in the world – this was with IPSO, the International Programme on the State of the Ocean. From the findings of that meeting, we produced a statement of concern. David Attenborough co-chaired the press event for that meeting but then, of course, the outcomes of Copenhagen were a huge let down to everyone, globally. That was a clear case of the politicians putting national politics before what is tantamount to a global emergency.

Q: In an interview with The Telegraph newspaper, you pointed out that one of the biggest problems for the ocean is a lack of education. “When you look at the ocean you see its skin but you don’t think about what is underneath.” Could you expand on that a little and describe some of the work Nekton does to educate people?

AR: Well, one of the major problems we have is that people don’t recognise the relevance of the oceans to them: they don’t know what’s in there, they have no idea that there are these hugely diverse ecosystems which are performing very important functions and essentially supporting the whole of the Earth’s life support system. This is something we constantly come up against, certainly when dealing with things like deep-sea bottom trawling, climate change impacts on the ocean, and a whole variety of other issues. And it’s not just the public – politicians often have a very poor understanding of the relevance of the ocean to all of us. Education is hugely important. The next generation, especially, needs to be far better equipped to understand the ocean, to realise its importance and understand that we must look after it. But this is equally important for today’s politicians, to avoid some of the lunacy that we’ve heard recently, for example, coming out from the Trump administration, with respect to climate change and much else besides.

Nekton is really a partnership between scientists and communicators. Its aim is to generate new scientific data on the deep ocean, to accelerate better management and better governance of the oceans, but also to physically put people into the deep ocean as a means to communicate and educate others about the deep sea.

We’ve had one mission to Bermuda, which has been very successful. Lots of new species were discovered, we confirmed that a new zone is present in the Caribbean between 150-300 metres (the rariphotic zone), originally described earlier this year by Karen Baldwin of the Smithsonian in Curacao – we found the same community in Bermuda. The next mission for Nekton will be to the Antarctic. The aim of that will be to try to discover what life lives underneath ice sheets around the Weddell Sea. So, we’ll have three autonomous underwater vehicles to survey beneath the Larsen C ice shelf. The mission following that will be the first of the Indian Ocean missions.

We estimate that the first expedition reached something like 750 million people and we reached probably about 1 million school children through the outreach programme, which involved developing specific classroom tools so that teachers could deliver lessons themed around the deep sea, but which also taught important things in terms of science, technology, mathematics and so on.

Q: How can NGOs, scientists and others find more creative ways to raise awareness of everything that oceans do for us and how much we depend on them?

AR: Well, I think you need to get lively communicators who can really understand the oceans and the issues to talk through popular media, whether that’s through TV, radio programmes, the Press, whatever it happens to be. There has been a tendency for scientists to remain in their boxes, you know: they do their science and that’s it. Not all scientists – there are good communicators just as there are in any other walk of life – but I think it’s very important that people who properly understand some of these issues are willing to stand up and say this is the case, this is happening, it’s important to you because of x, y and z.

The balance in communications is always between showing people the reality and severity of the situation, but at the same time not depressing them to the point of making them feel that it’s all hopeless and there’s nothing they can do. It’s very important that when a message is given that our oceans are unhealthy that, on the other hand we say that if these things are done we can change things, or you can help if you do these things to try and put this right. There needs to be a coupling of the shock message with a clear message that things are not hopeless.

It is a difficult balance, and I’ve recently heard a lot of people say, “don’t mention the bad stuff.” But I think that’s the wrong approach, because if it’s not mentioned, it will get forgotten about and we can’t afford to let that happen.

Q: What role do you think organisations like Synchronicity Earth can play in ocean conservation?

AR: I think Synchronicity Earth’s role is really trying to connect funders, foundations, donors and anyone who has the financial means to support work on the oceans and other ecosystems with people who really need funding to try and make a difference in many of these areas of conservation. What I particularly like is that Synchronicity Earth really think about what they are supporting and funding and the result of that has been a focus on some areas which other people have neglected – in terms of funding – but which are incredibly important.

One statistic which demonstrates how apparently random (marine) conservation funding can be: at the Our Ocean Conference in Malta in 2017, there were all sorts of promises made about funding for ocean work, but something less than 2 per cent of those pledges were made for the Indian Ocean. Yet the Indian Ocean is one of the oceans about which we know least and which is suffering from some of the most severe human pressures. It’s vital that there is an organisation out there which is able to take a step back and really understand the conservation landscape and to then try to direct funding more evenly towards areas which are just as pressing as ‘the big 5’ or the better known conservation issues.

Q: Why do you think the Indian Ocean is overlooked in this way? Is it because it’s the Global South?

AR: Yes, I think it is because it’s the Global South. I think it’s also because the Indian Ocean is not on our back doorstep, so again you run into this issue of people just not knowing about the region and how important it is.

The bizarre thing is that this is a historical pattern. If you look at the HMS Challenger expedition, they basically bypassed the Indian Ocean by going East via Antarctica so this is a problem that has been around for well over a century.

Q: In 10 or 20 years’ time when you look back at your work, what do you hope you will have achieved?

AR: Well, I hope that we will have made progress in terms of our understanding of the deep ocean and I’d hope that the knowledge we’ve gained will have been used to improve management and conservation of marine ecosystems. I think it’s as simple as that.

I do believe that we have had impact in our work translating science into policy thus far. Back in 2000, when I was an expert witness in a case for Greenpeace about whether the European Habitats Directive applied to deep sea habitats – that case came to a successful conclusion and passed into European case law. Some of the wins in terms of improving management of deep-sea bottom fishing and limiting where it can take place clearly demonstrate that work from a dedicated but small group of people can have a substantial impact at a global level in terms of what’s going on out in the ocean.

Q: And would you say the same about the work going on around a new treaty for the High Seas?

AR: Well, it has already borne fruit in that we now have a decision that there is going to be a process. Now all eyes are on that process, because it’s probably the most important thing that is going to happen in terms of high seas governance for a generation.

Alex’s expert advice has been instrumental to the development of  Synchronicity Earth’s High and Deep Seas Programme.

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