Future potential for the production of new wonder drugs – including anti-cancer agents – from marine animals and plants, is under threat according to biodiversity expert Professor Carlo Heip, speaking at the European marine science and ocean technology conference EurOCEAN 2004 in Galway, today.
According to Professor Heip, marine biodiversity – the richness of life in the sea – is being undermined by overfishing, pollution, the introduction of exotic or alien species from other countries, by habitat destruction and global climate change. All this is reducing the number of species of animals and plants in the oceans, and with them any potential exploration and exploitation of chemical products, anti-cancer drugs and other pharmaceuticals.
"Marine biodiversity is very poorly known," said Professor Heip. "Compared with the millions of species described on land, only a few hundred thousand species of marine plants and animals have been scientifically described."
According to Professor Heip the probability for many exciting and important discoveries in the future is very high. "The deeper sea floor, when going from the ocean margins to the deep sea, has yielded one surprise after the other after the hydrothermal vents were discovered in 1979." Yet the total surface of deep sea floor that has been physically sampled to date remains about the size of a football field.
Yet, according to Professor Heip, the rich treasure chest of biological resources offered by the ocean is under serious threat from human activities. Evidence of this includes the rapid deterioration of coral reefs all over the world, the loss of diversity in pelagic fisheries due to long-line fisheries of a number of nations, and the introduction of exotic species, mainly due to transport in ballast water.
"The only activity that is changing marine biodiversity on a global level is fisheries,’ said Professor Heip. ‘Fisheries are changing the marine food webs by removing top predators and increasingly by catching long-lived species down to a size below the threshold at which the population crashes. For many of these species recovery is extremely low or impossible."
The Marine Institute. May 2004.