Promoting deep oceans literacy in Pakistan

Taj M Khattak

FOR CENTURIES, inhabitants of Indian subcontinent and Arabian Peninsula have been navigating the Indian Ocean in pursuit of new resources and opportunities but their knowledge of the oceans remained localized and limited only to trade winds and monsoonal phenomenon. With passage of time, as long distance mariners ventured beyond continental shelf to where blue skies meet deep blue waters and where the depths are measured in kilometers instead of fathoms, they gradually began to comprehend the sheer scale and potential of deep oceans.
There is no agreed definition of ‘deep sea’ but it is generally taken as that part of the ocean which is deeper than 200 meters, where natural light does not penetrate and human beings cannot reach without submersible technology. By virtue of this definition, deep sea (sometimes also referred to as the earth’s inner space) covers about 65% of the earth’s surface and provides 95% of its biosphere.
Considering that about 75 countries are still endeavoring to have their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) extended beyond continental shelf limits of 200 nautical miles, Pakistan has done well to be among 20 countries globally ( and first in our region) which have successfully had their deep sea territories extended. Pakistan’s continental shelf has been increased from 200 to 350 nautical miles which is as large an area as the provinces of Sindh and KPK put together.
While International laws permit flagged vessels of other nations to transit and undertake innocent passage in this huge stretch of sea, remaining outside our territorial limits of twelve nautical miles, the law grants sovereign rights to Pakistan for all living and non living resources in the ‘water column’ under the sea surface and on and below the ‘territory of sea bed’.
The importance of oceans in terms of their huge economic potential can hardly be overstated but the value and nature of these benefits are little understood due to generally poor ocean literacy worldwide and in Pakistan in particular. According to European Marine Board (EMB), only 0.0001% of the deep Sea has been sampled biologically, which gives an idea about mankind’s limited knowledge in this domain. This is incredible since for nearly half a century now, man has been venturing into far reaches of outer space while two third of planet earth remains unexplored.
For a long time, the deep sea oceans were thought to be ‘deserts’ in terms of species diversity but now it has been discovered that life occurs in all its parts and even beneath the seabed in temperatures ranging from 2 degrees to more than 1200 degrees centigrade. A variety of highly diverse landscapes are known to exist, which include canyons, seamounts, ridges, deep water coral reefs, cold seeps, pockmarks, mud volcanoes, carbonate mounds, brine pools gas hydrates, fractures and trenches that host rich and diversified microbial and animal assemblages.
With an average depth of 4.2 Km, near total darkness, average temperatures less than 4 degrees centigrade and hydrostatic pressures between 20 to 1,000 atmospheres, the deep sea encompasses many extremes as compared to more familiar terrestrial environments. Lack of solar light negates photosynthetic primary production below 200 meters so deep sea organism largely depend on food traversing from surface water layers, coastal waters or land.
The Census of Marine Life, a global network of researchers from more than 80 countries engaged in a 10 years initiative to assess and explain the diversity, distribution and abundance of life in the oceans, has reported that every second specimen collected from abyssal waters deeper than 3,000 meters belonged to a previously undescribed specie – such is the fascinating world of deep sea waiting to be explored.
In the past, barring shipping and laying of trans-oceanic submarine cables, commercial activities remained restricted to coastal and shelf sea. There had been global reliance on deployment of specialized equipment from ocean-class research vessels for functions such as coring arrays, bottom trawls, landers , water sampling etc but lately technological advancements and strong economic drivers have pulled these and other profitable ventures, towards deeper waters commonly referred to as ‘Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction’ (ABNJ).
The global maritime landscape, however, is changing fast especially after launching of the Blue Economy initiative in EU in 2012 which identified five priority areas for further support and development under its Blue Growth Strategy. There is significant level of interest in aquaculture, renewable energy and coastal tourism while seabed mining and biotechnology require further development and support from public and private sectors.
This recently accelerated human activity in world’s oceans and its huge economic returns have been reflected in a painstakingly researched policy brief titled ‘Delving Deep’ published by European Marine Board (EMB) last year. The document suggests that EU’s blue economy is already worth approximately Euros 500 billion per annum in gross value added terms and growing. With full potential of blue economy yet to be exploited, it is obvious that deep sea oceans will play a central role in addressing critical challenges faced by mankind within this century as global population reaches between 9 and 12 billion people.
It is therefore, not surprising to witness a growing worldwide interest in an extensive range of research and development programs in ‘emerging’ areas such as sensors and communications, marine biodiversity and ocean energy – all aimed towards accessing resources in deep waters. As the cutting edge of science moves on, there is even potential in using extreme deep sea organism as a source of new bioactive compounds which could be used to generate new drugs, nutraceuticals(a broad umbrella term used to describe products derived from food sources with extra health benefits in addition basic nutrition value) and industrial products.
While there is compelling logic about potential of large scale food production, energy source and extraction of other resources from beneath the seabed, attaining critical mass and economy of scales remain monumental challenges. Fortunately, there is also greater emphasis nowadays on complex international ocean governance issues in order to develop a robust and agreed legal basis for regulating access to and utilization of resources from ABNJ, whether from the water column (High Seas) or the seabed and subsoil (The Area).
Interestingly, technological development and commercial prime movers are outstripping the pace of ocean governance discussions which is a cause for concern as it inevitably increases risks for conflict at sea.The potential for a brewing crisis in ABNJ can be gauged from the fact that China has recently planned to set up an “International Maritime Judicial Centre” to help protect its sovereignty and rights at sea. It already has the largest number of maritime courts globally which last year heard about 16,000 maritime cases.
Setting up of such an International Maritime Judicial Centre is a vote of ‘no confidence’ in the international court of arbitration in Hague. Philippine has lodged a case about its dispute with China in South China Sea and the later has pledged not to participate in the proceedings. The court in Hague works under UN and is generally perceived as influenced by US and Europe – as such not considered to be impartial in its working.
In the regional context, Pakistan could soon face these challenges if we ignore our seas and oceans for far too long and global ‘invasion’, as it were, into deeper waters continues at this pace. It would be worthwhile to agitate Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) countries for an initiative on the lines of EMB for common sharing of ocean resources based on sound legal basis for collective good of the people who live in countries whose shores are washed by the Indian Ocean.
At present, there is an acute knowledge deficit of deep sea, in particular, an adequate understanding of complex deep ocean ecosystem including its biodiversity, its spatial and temporal variations, ecology, biology, physics and chemistry which needs to be improved. There are major challenges like mapping terrain and habitat in deep sea, study its biodiversity, understand its ecosystem functioning, connectivity and resilience besides undertaking a detailed evaluation of full spectrum environmental risks. Pakistan has a distinct regional advantage in the quality of its human resource which can be made use of to play an important role in the IOR’s orientation towards deep sea.
Understandably, there will be problems in terms of funding and infrastructure to meet various scientific challenges but they will have to be overcome to achieve some basic policy goals and eventually implement appropriate governance models at national levels before regional asymmetries in oceanic capabilities aggravate matters. The process of ocean literacy in Pakistan has to begin now and in all earnestness. Unless we know more about the deep seas, there will be very little urge or inspiration to benefit from this huge treasure.
—The writer is a retired Vice Admiral and former VCNS of Pakistan Navy. E-mail:

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