Treasures beneath uncharted seas

THE Queen of England herself got a glimpse of it and seemed genuinely impressed.

Her eyes widened at the sight of all the exquisite fish spread out before her in Cork’s English Market, something magnetic that never fails to fascinate many us who have been calling there regularly over a lifetime.

Which raises the question: do we value the seas that encircle us? They could be described as the last great frontiers on the planet — the unexplored oceans which can reveal unheard-of wonders when probed by modern technology, such as remotely-controlled submarines.

Ireland has vast marine riches which have yet to be tapped into. For starters, we have some of the most valuable sea fisheries in Europe and a public consultation process has begun on how we can exploit something like 125,000 square kilometres of sea.

Oil and gas reserves are out there, in abundance, but other spectacular discoveries of natural wonders are also coming to attention. Last summer, the national research vessel, RV Celtic Explorer, found a field of previously uncharted hydro-thermal vents, 1,600km out in the Atlantic and 3,000 metres below the surface of the sea.

The entire marine area is a very broad one and the consultation process, launched by Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Simon Coveney, is hoping to get into a trillion euro global market for marine products and services, including seafood, tourism, shipping, oil and gas, renewable ocean energy and new applications for health, medicine and technology. Already some innovative people are working on generating energy from waves along the west coast. Many small seafood enterprises, including some in Cork and Kerry, are producing first class fruits de mer and are well on the way to becoming established international brand names. Smoked salmon and mussels come to mind.

With experts constantly warning that finite oil reserves on land will run out in a matter of decades, it’s time to get really serious about the oil and gas beneath the sea floor. It will, of course, be difficult to get at such valuable resources in severe ocean conditions, but a deal of research is underway into developing the necessary technology.

As a country, we have a marine resource about 10 times bigger than our land mass. Yet, only 1.2% of national economic output comes from the sea. It’s obvious the opportunities are out there and Mr Coveney is inviting submissions that will result in an all-embracing marine plan to create jobs.

Taking our seabed area into account, Ireland is one of the biggest EU states, with exclusive rights over one of the largest sea-to-land ratios of any EU country. Our coastline is 7,500km longer than that of most other European countries.

But, back to the scientific expeditions of the RV Celtic Explorer. What they saw last summer was black smoke and boiling water billowing from a crack in the ocean floor. Exotic fish, crabs and tubeworms live and thrive in this lightless and toxic environment, all of which has resulted in a review of what had previously been thought. Such life thrives in complete darkness on bacteria fed by chemicals.

The volcanic vents provide valuable information on conditions in which life can develop. They also generate massive amounts of metal sulphides, which may contain silver, mercury, lead, nickel and zinc.

The work of the mission, led by Dr Andy Wheeler, of University College Cork, will feature in a documentary on the National Geographic Channel series, Alien Deep, premiering globally this year.

Dr Wheeler recalled how their remotely-operated submarine descended a seemingly bottomless underwater cliff into the abyss. “We never reached the bottom, but rising up from below were these chimneys of metal sulphides belching black plumes of mineral-rich superheated water. Often, the search for vents takes much longer and our success is a testament to the hard work and skill of everyone on board.”

The Geological Survey of Ireland and the Marine Institute are involved in offshore work in which new technologies and mapping are helping to lift the lid on many mysteries of the deep. Aside from all that, there’s a practical consideration — the potential to generate jobs and economic benefits.

State investment has been estimated to return four to six times the capital outlay. Detailed geological information drives mineral exploration, fishing activity and energy projects. But it doesn’t stop there.

Studies are currently underway into the use of onshore hotwater for electricity generation. Water hot enough to do so with existing technology has been found at 5,000 metres.

All in all, it seems we’re on the threshold of a new world and researchers are pushing the boundaries of knowledge further and further into the unknown.

The consultation phase will be open until Mar 31 and an integrated marine plan is due to be published during summer 2012.

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