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Executive Summary & Key Findings

The 2022 Global Deep-Sea Capacity Assessment offers a deep dive into the human and technical capacity for deep-sea exploration and research in every country and territory with deep ocean in their exclusive economic zones.

Published onSep 12, 2022
Executive Summary & Key Findings
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The 2022 Global Deep-Sea Capacity Assessment is a baseline assessment of the technical and human capacity for deep-sea exploration and research in every coastal area with deep ocean worldwide. To our knowledge, it is the most comprehensive global assessment of deep-sea capabilities ever conducted.

From 200 to nearly 11,000 meters below sea level, the deep sea encompasses the single largest—and arguably the most critical—biosphere on Earth. Globally, nearly two-thirds of all exclusive economic zones (EEZs) combined have water depths between 2,000 and 6,000 meters, making this a particularly critical depth range to access. 

This assessment includes information for 186 GeoAreas divided into six global regions: Europe, Asia, Northern America, Africa, Oceania, and Latin America & the Caribbean. “GeoArea” includes sovereign countries and dependent territories.

These data were collected through both an online survey and manual research. While many of the findings in this assessment were not, on the surface, surprising, the results were more nuanced than expected. We documented previously underreported details, from the available human capacity to possible vessel access.

The 2022 Global Deep-Sea Capacity Assessment is an officially endorsed activity of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

Key Findings   

  • Many who consider deep-sea exploration & research important do not have deep-sea tools & technologies

    Respondents for numerous subregions, particularly Micronesia, Melanesia, Western Africa, and Eastern Africa, felt that deep-sea exploration & research was considered important in their location but did not have access to the tools needed to do deep-sea work.

  • In many places, there is expertise but not technology

    In every subregion, respondents indicated that the presence of in-country individuals with deep-sea expertise exceeded the availability of deep-sea tools. More access to vessels, deep submergence vehicles, sensors, and data tools would activate available expertise to conduct locally-led deep-sea exploration and research.

  • More deep submergence vehicles are needed globally

    Deep submergence vehicles were the technical capacity that had the lowest presence, access, and satisfaction worldwide. More access to lower-cost, easy-to-use technologies suitable for deep water would be transformative globally.

  • Non-research assets could be available for deep ocean research

    While vessels were the technical capacity with the most extensive presence worldwide, in general, vessels were the technical capacity to which respondents had the second-lowest access. Unlocking access to additional vessels for use in research would be transformational.

  • Funding is the top challenge

    Survey respondents identified funding as the single greatest challenge, followed by human capacity and knowledge, access to vessels, and access to deep submergence vehicles to undertake deep-sea research. Low-cost solutions are key to increasing access to the deep sea.

  • Prioritizing deep-sea exploration is essential

    Many respondents felt that their countries did not consider deep-sea research and exploration important. Making stronger internal cases for why deep-sea exploration is critical in each location could be beneficial in securing support.

  • Tailored strategies are needed for each location

    Better understanding the physical environment can help ensure the greatest return on investment. For example, in Central America, Melanesia, and Western Asia, 75% of all EEZs lie between 200 to 4,000 m, and all African EEZs are less than 6,000 m. Creating deep-ocean technologies and strategies tailored to each location would be more efficient than a one-size-fits-all approach.

  • Detailed research and inclusion matter

    The results of this study were more nuanced than expected. We documented previously underreported details, from the available human capacity to possible vessel access. The very act of including and reaching out to people in locations often under-resourced and overlooked in many global studies created a community and a sense of inclusion that made the effort and detail of this report and future studies of its kind valuable in many ways.

Status of Deep-Sea Exploration & Research

Survey respondents were asked to assess the status of deep-sea exploration and research in their GeoArea by stating to what extent they agreed with the following statements: (1) deep-sea exploration and research are considered important in their GeoArea, (2) they have in-country deep-sea technology, and (3) they have in-country deep-sea expertise. 

Globally, 52% of respondents agreed that exploration and research were considered important in their GeoArea. Only 33% of respondents agreed that they had the in-country technology to conduct deep-sea exploration and research, and half agreed that they had in-country deep-sea expertise.

Of note are two particular groups of subregions. Respondents for Northern America and Australia & New Zealand agreed there were high levels of in-country technology and expertise but thought deep-sea exploration and research were not considered important. Conversely, respondents for subregions Melanesia, Micronesia, Eastern Africa, and Southern Asia agreed that deep-sea exploration was considered important but did not agree that in-country tools and expertise existed.

Issues, Challenges, and Opportunities

Respondents’ feedback was requested on the most important issues in their GeoArea, their top challenges regarding deep-sea exploration and research, and the opportunities they were most excited about in the next five to ten years.

Survey results revealed that conservation & protection, basic science & exploration, and fisheries & aquaculture were among the three most important issues in all regions. In addition, climate change was noted as an important issue in Oceania and Northern America, offshore oil and gas was an important issue in Africa and Asia, and seabed mining was an important issue in Oceania.

The top challenge across the globe—without question—was funding. In Europe and Northern America, access to vessels was the second biggest challenge. In Asia and Latin America & the Caribbean, access to vessels and human capacity were equally ranked as the second biggest challenge. In Africa and Oceania, human capacity was the second biggest challenge.

The top three global opportunities for deep-sea exploration and research were training opportunities, less expensive data collection technology, and better data access and analysis tools. Training opportunities were the top choice in Africa and Latin America & the Caribbean. Less expensive data collection was the highest-ranked opportunity in Europe, Asia, and Northern America. In Oceania, respondents were excited about better/more precise data collection technology.

Deep-Sea Capacity Presence, Accessibility, and Satisfaction

The next part of the assessment recorded the presence of marine organizations, industries,  and deep-sea technology—vessels, deep submergence vehicles (DSVs), sensors, and data tools—based on extensive research, survey respondents’ access to each type of technology, and respondents’ satisfaction with the technology to which they have access. One of the key findings throughout the report was the disparity between the in-country presence of a technology and an individual’s access to that technology. This formed a global assessment of the relative ability of regions to conduct deep-sea exploration and research.

Organizations & Industries

Using manual research and survey data, we assessed marine organizations and industries as a proxy for human capacity1

First, we considered the presence of different types of organizations, including universities, research laboratories, government agencies and ministries, and other organizations. We identified 2,136 deep-sea and marine organizations globally; 809 were universities and research laboratories, 812 were government agencies and ministries, and 515 were other organizations. Northern America had the highest number of organizations per GeoArea, followed by Europe. Latin America & the Caribbean had the lowest. 

We then researched whether or not ten types of marine industries were present in each GeoArea, and independently asked survey respondents which of these industries they were aware were present. Marine transportation, fisheries & aquaculture, and tourism were found to be present in the most GeoAreas worldwide. Our research revealed that deep-sea mining was in the early development stage in many regions but was the least currently active industry. However, survey respondents frequently over-identified it as an active industry in their region, suggesting the attention explicitly paid to deep-sea mining is elevating it as a local issue.

Vessels

While vessels had the most extensive presence worldwide, respondents had the second-lowest access to them compared to other technical capacities. 

Fishing vessels were the most present type of vessel, followed by recreational vessels. Cruise ships and research vessels were the two types of vessels least present in all regions. The most accessible vessels globally were research vessels, followed by fishing vessels; however, more than a quarter of respondents worldwide reported having no access to vessels.

Several respondents provided feedback about other types of vessels available to them that were not listed in the survey, including cargo ships, tug boats, oil tankers, diving, drilling, and cable-laying vessels. New strategies for using non-research vessels for research purposes could open up significant opportunities for sensor deployment and data gathering.

Deep Submergence Vehicles

Deep submergence vehicles (DSVs) were the technical capacity with the lowest presence, access, and satisfaction worldwide. 

Sixty-five percent of respondents globally considered DSVs important for their work. Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) were the most present DSVs globally, followed by autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and benthic landers. Towsleds were the least present type of DSV found across regions. The most accessible DSVs were ROVs, followed by AUVs and benthic landers. The most present DSVs—ROVs, AUVs, and landers—are also the most accessible. Just under half of the respondents globally reported having no access to DSVs. 

Sixty-five percent of DSVs to which respondents had access could operate deeper than 200 m. However, half of the DSVs available to respondents for Africa, Asia, Oceania, and Latin America & the Caribbean could not operate deeper than 200 m. In contrast, in Northern America, 44% of reported DSVs could operate deeper than 4,000 m. 

Respondents globally were generally dissatisfied with available DSVs. Respondents in Europe and Northern America were the most satisfied with DSVs in their GeoArea. Respondents in Asia, Africa, Oceania, Latin America & the Caribbean were the least satisfied with the DSVs available to them. Seventy-one percent of respondents reported that increased access to DSVs would have a high impact or be transformative for their work. 

Sensors

Sensors had a limited presence worldwide. Yet, sensor systems were the technical capacity to which respondents had the second-highest level of access and the highest general satisfaction.

Over seventy percent of respondents considered deep-sea sensing systems important for their work. Water sampling systems were the most common type of sensor found globally, followed by navigation systems. Genetic sensors for environmental DNA (eDNA) were the least present type.

The most accessible sensor systems were CTDs and water sampling systems, followed by chemical sensors (e.g., O2, pH, eH). One-quarter of respondents reported having no access to deep-sea sensors. Over 70% of respondents globally reported that increased access to deep-sea sensor systems would significantly impact or be transformative for their work. 

Data Tools

Data tools were the second most present technical capacity worldwide. Additionally, respondents had the highest access to data tools, though the types of data tools to which respondents had access varied widely. While presence and access to data tools were generally high, respondents were the least satisfied with these tools. 

Eighty-eight percent of respondents globally reported that data tools were important for their work. Geographic information systems (GIS) was the most present data tool, followed by cloud computing and data management. Genomic sequencing tools were the least present.

The most accessible systems were GIS, data management tools, and data storage capacity. Less than 20% of respondents globally reported having no access to any of the listed data tools. Over 75% of respondents globally reported that increased access to data tools would greatly impact or be transformative for their work. 

Conclusion

This assessment demonstrated the unique regional and subregional challenges and opportunities facing deep-sea research and exploration. 

Northern America has the most extensive deep-ocean exploration and research capacity in the Americas. However, Latin America & the Caribbean have a well-developed human capacity with a high potential for leading innovation in deep-sea research that a more substantial research infrastructure could enhance. For example, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Chile are working on developing DSV prototypes, which are in the preliminary stages of commercialization.

While Asia has higher access to vessels and DSVs than other regions, this access remains concentrated in the more affluent Asian nations and is less likely to be available in lower-income countries. Lower-cost access to DSVs, sensors, and data tools would have a transformative impact on Asia, particularly in low-income and middle-income GeoAreas.

Respondents for Africa selected training opportunities as the top deep-sea opportunity in the near future; in-country skills development should therefore be prioritized and funded. In addition, deep-sea technology that can reach only 6,000 m would unlock access to 100% of African EEZs, presenting a unique opportunity to expand accessible deep-sea research and exploration tools and programs in this region.

This capacity assessment indicates that many European research institutions have the technology and human capacity for deep-sea exploration and research. Generally, the presence of, access to, and satisfaction with deep-sea research and exploration capacity was high throughout the region. Because of their high level of deep-sea capacity, European countries could play a significant role in facilitating broader access worldwide. 

Oceania presents one of the most significant opportunities for deep-sea exploration and research. It has the largest deep-ocean EEZ area in the world and has the least capacity to explore it through local marine infrastructure and deep-sea technology. Local interest is high, as respondents from Oceania agreed far more than other regions that deep-sea exploration was considered important by those in their country. All respondents for Polynesia indicated that deep-sea mining is one of the most important issues they face and that they do not have in-country deep-sea tools or expertise to address it. Ensuring this region has the in-country ability to explore, understand, and manage deep-sea environments is a critical path forward.

This assessment will provide the baseline information necessary to strategically develop, equitably implement, and quantitatively measure the impact of deep-sea exploration and research capacity development over the coming years. With the 2022 Global Deep-Sea Capacity Assessment, it is now possible to measure the evolution of local capacity over the next decade, an important indicator of progress during the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

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