An international treaty is needed to regulate the search for new products from species living on the ocean floor in deep international waters, the UN University's Institute for Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) has warned in a report.
The report, released on 8 June, says that unfettered commercial exploitation of such species poses risks to unique deep-sea ecosystems and needs to be regulated to ensure that benefits arising from the research are shared fairly.
Deep-sea ecosystems include hydrothermal vents, cracks in the Earth's crust where water is very hot and rich in iron, sulphur and other chemicals.
Compounds already isolated from these vents include enzymes that are stable at high temperatures, and have been commercialised for use in laboratory techniques.
Researchers are also studying compounds from deep-sea microbes to see if they can be used in medicines.
Compounds found in marine organisms have proven profitable: anti-cancer agents from these organisms are valued at US$1 billion a year, and global sales in 2000 of products derived from marine species amounted to US$100 billion.
Wealthy nations such as the United States and Japan have been at the forefront of this type of 'bioprospecting' research. But some developing countries, such as India and Malaysia, are exploring the bottom of the ocean too.
The report highlights the lack of regulation of access to and use of marine life in international waters. UNESCO's Salvatore Arico, the report's co-author, says: "These resources lie within the global commons, but are they free for anyone to take or are they the heritage and property of all humankind?"
Regulation is important for two reasons, say the authors. First, some deep-sea ecosystems such as seamounts and cold seeps are more vulnerable than others to overexploitation by bioprospectors.
Although the threat to deep-sea biodiversity is fairly minor at the moment, it could become significant, Arico told SciDev.Net.
Sam Johnston, a UNU-IAS senior research fellow, told SciDev.Net that the lack of regulation is preventing the world from benefiting from the ocean's biodiversity.
Without clear guidelines, it is difficult for the researchers, especially those from the private sector, to undertake research on deep-sea genetic resources that could bring broader benefits than profits alone, added Johnson.
The authors say it would be of little use for individual countries to develop their own guidelines, as broader regulations are needed.
Until a binding international treaty is in place, the authors suggest that regions create their own agreements. These would determine what each country's nationals can do in international waters.
The report says that while binding rules are being developed, the UN General Assembly should adopt guidelines on the exploitation of deep-sea species and how benefits from them are shared.
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