"What is being destroyed now took centuries to discover. We are felling ancient forests of diversity," he said, referring to the loss of colonies of invertebrates accidentally destroyed as trawlers scrape nets over coral reefs and under sea mountains.
The pace of recovery of species is "like a glacier," he said. "One pass of a trawler can destroy a 5,000-year-old reef."
Between 30 percent and 50 percent of coral reefs off Norway have been damaged, he asserted.
"You can see the devastation of communities," said Cindy Lee Van Dover in agreement. Van Dover is an ecologist at the College of William and Mary and has been studying the sea floor as part of the International Biodiversity Observation Year.
Roberts said there is an urgent need to establish marine reserves to protect species whose existence is threatened. Currently marine deep-sea fishing is not regulated.
A recent report by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature and the International Conservation Union Science said international law offers a basis for the establishing such marine reserves. He criticized governments in the United States and Europe for providing grants to the fishing industry to develop improved technology for deep-water fishing.
The idea, prevalent in the 19th century, that the ocean is so vast extinction of species was not a realistic possibility is incorrect. In a paper appearing in Friday's issue of Science, Roberts and colleagues report thousands of species live in restricted, highly localized areas.
The industry's efforts to net more fish has damaged the fish population as well, he said. For example, the orange roughy population off New Zealand has been reduced by 80 percent. Such deep-sea fishing also threatens the viability of the species. Rockfish, for example, a deep swimming genus, can reach 200 years of age. according to radiometric dating methods.
New Zealand and Australia, he said, have taken steps to protect some of the underwater biodiversity by restricting fishing on a number of underwater mountains. Australia has moved to protect 12, New Zealand to safeguard 19. The United States has established a small protected area off Alaska.
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