Irish Times view on deepwater wonders discovered off west coast

Rare, delicate and complex sponge and coral ecosystems have captured public imagination and delighted specialists

Beautiful coral species were captured at depths of up to 2,991m off the west coast of Ireland. Video: Marine Institute

 

The Marine Institute has released vivid photographic evidence that there are rare, delicate and complex sponge and coral ecosystems in our deep waters, 300 miles off the west coast. These discoveries, made by a multi-institution research team using a remotely-operated submarine vessel, have captured public imagination and delighted specialists. One of the black corals may be a species new to science, and the sponge ecosystem had previously only been found off Canada.

The revelation of species and habitats hitherto unknown on our seabed is welcome news, especially in a period when so many environmental stories are sadly driven by accounts of extinction and habitat degradation. This exciting development is a reminder that, even in a small state like Ireland, there are many secrets to be unveiled and celebrated in the natural world. And since these most unusual biological infrastructures provide a home to many other creatures, it seems likely that more wonders remain to be observed among the corals and sponges, which may themselves also have pharmacological value.

However, if these creatures had human powers of understanding and foresight, they might be shuddering at the knowledge that they are now on the radar of the Irish state and of the European Union. (The EU co-funded this research expedition as part of the Integrated Mapping For the Sustainable Development of Ireland’s Marine Resource project.) After all, more than 90 per cent of our nominally protected habitats are already described by the National Parks and Wildlife Service as in “bad or inadequate condition”. And across the EU, despite heroic efforts by citizens, public servants and scientists, the ‘natural capital’ represented by our landscapes and seascapes continues to be rapidly squandered.

The Marine Institute and its partners, the Geological Survey of Ireland, NUIG and others, deserve credit for their cutting-edge research. But we now have an obligation to ensure this beautiful addition to our natural heritage receives genuinely sustainable stewardship.

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