In the past few weeks Oceana's Ranger expedition has been exploring a series of underwater mountains 130 miles West of Portugal known as the Gorringe bank. Formed along with the Atlantic Ocean as Pangaea pulled apart 145 to 155 million years ago, the Gorringe bank juts from depths of as much as 16,000 feet to only 100 feet below the surface. These underwater mountain ranges are a hotspot for marine life, as nutrient rich water upwells to the seamount peaks.
Closer to the surface a familiar parade of whales, dolphins, swordfish and barracuda visit lush kelp forests, while shearwaters and petrels circle above. As you dive deeper though, as the Ranger expedition has with its underwater robot (ROV), you enter a somewhat stranger world, but one that is no less diverse. This is the domain of the dragon fish, the fan corals, the otherworldly deep-sea sharks, the churlish-looking pink frogmouth and still more species unknown to science. Other animals are ambassadors of the deep, patrolling up and down the seamounts in search of prey
“During last year’s expedition we found some new species whose existence in the Gorringe was unknown, such as branching black coral, hydrocoral, dogfish, bird’s nest sponge, and various gorgonia”, says Ricardo Aguilar, Director of Research at Oceana in Europe. “There are dozens of species which have not been identified yet. We hope that they will provide new data on these ecosystems, and facilitate the protection and conservation of this unique enclave.”
Unfortunately, as the ranger expedition has also discovered, this habitat is also home to an increasing amount of trash, especially abandoned fishing gear.
By documenting and exploring habitat, Oceana is gathering data about this unique ecosystem that will be crucial in formulating conservation plans that will hopefully protect the area from malign human influences like pollution and bottom trawling.
Pirate fishermen are currently enjoying a gold rush in Europe selling the liver oil from illegally caught deep-sea sharks. Some of the world’s most notorious pirate fishing vessels have been able to exploit loopholes in weak EU laws designed to prevent the sale of illegally caught fish, but that overlook the sale of shark liver oil. As a result these poorly-understood animals are suffering.
Deep-sea sharks, which live below 300 meters, use the oil in their livers to regulate their buoyancy, but in consumer products the oil, or squalene, is used in everything from cosmetics to Omega-3 dietary supplements to industrial lubricants. Deep-sea sharks are slow-growing and slow to mature making them especially vulnerable to overfishing. That’s why Oceana is calling on the EU to close a loophole that allows this illegally caught product to come to market.
As Xavier Pastor, Executive Director of Oceana Europe said on Thursday:
“Vulnerable deep-sea sharks have become the new gold pursued by internationally renowned poachers – including vessels that have been linked to European interests. As long as EU rules against illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing neglect this product, European borders remain wide open to illegal shark liver oil.”
In the past Oceana has successfully fought to end the use of shark liver oil in consumer products. In 2008, following pressure from Oceana, Unilever announced that it would remove shark squalene from its cosmetic brands, including Pond’s and Dove. In North America, Oceana persuaded the Vermont Country Store to stop selling an shark squalene skin enhancer unfortunately branded as “Oceana”.
Know what’s in your lip gloss or face-cream. Alternative squalene sources exist, including olive oil, rice bran, wheat germ and amaranth seeds. Before you freshen up make sure you aren’t leaving sharks out to dry and help Oceana bring an end to illegal fishing.