Announcement of Opportunity: Understanding ecosystems for sustainable resource exploitation in the deep ocean scoping group

Closing date: 16:00 on 8 March 2016

NERC invites applications to join a scoping group that will develop the science case for a potential strategic research programme on 'Understanding ecosystems for sustainable resource exploitation in the deep ocean'.

This is one of three potential strategic programme areas (SPAs) which have emerged from the ideas process for strategic research. We do not expect to be able to fund all three potential SPAs, and any potential SPA must meet NERC's criteria for a strategic programme, so it is possible that none of them will result in funded programmes.

The proposed programme aims to revolutionise our understanding of the biodiversity and resilience of marine ecosystems (at water depths of more than 1000m) that are currently or potentially affected by deep-ocean industries. The science case should set out the fundamental science that is urgently required for the future design of impact and management programmes as needed under national/international law and to 'de-risk' industry operations in the deep ocean.

Deep-ocean resource exploitation is typically focused on ecosystem hotspots, including:

  • seamounts, where slow-growing and late-maturing target fish species (eg orange roughy) congregate, and where cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts form on hard rock,
  • oceanic ridges, including hydrothermal vent fields that precipitate polymetallic seafloor massive sulfides,
  • submarine canyons and channels on the continental slope that are foci for oil and gas exploration and supporting infrastructure (eg pipelines). Deep-sea mining also targets extensive abyssal plains, which host manganese nodules and critical strategic elements in their soft sediments.

Physical disturbances from deep-ocean extractive operations in these different environments have many similarities (eg direct habitat destruction from demersal trawling/mineral extraction, seafloor smothering from sediment plumes/drill cuttings, chemical/noise pollution). However, the responses of species endemic to each environment are likely to be very different. This is due to variations in size of individual impacted habitat patches (from more than 10,000km² for trawled slopes and abyssal plain nodule provinces, through 100km² for individual seamounts, to 10km² for individual oil and gas installations and hydrothermal vent fields), and also degrees of endemism and species richness, frequency of natural disturbance, and exposure to multiple anthropogenic disturbances (cumulative effects). These varied environments therefore provide wide ecological diversity to investigate the fundamental dynamics of deep-sea ecosystems, in addition to enabling the responsible management of deep-ocean resource exploitation.

The high level questions likely to be addressed by this proposed programme include:

  • Biodiversity: how diverse are fauna in relevant deep-ocean environments, what controls the species diversity of individual habitat patches (eg substrata, water depth), and what are the relevant scales and units of biodiversity for the effective management of seafloor resources?
  • Population and life-history biology: how large and cosmopolitan are deep-ocean species populations when defined as genetic units rather than morphospecies, and how does dispersal and recruitment (and therefore connectivity) vary among species with contrasting life-history features and in contrasting deep-sea environments?
  • Ecological resilience and response: how do ecosystem function and associated services respond to changes in environment and assemblage composition, and what are the physiological and behavioural responses of taxa to relevant environmental disturbances such as sediment smothering?

A fully multi-disciplinary approach combining deep-ocean ecology and taxonomy, physical oceanography, geological and habitat mapping, and application of cutting-edge technology and techniques, eg nested 3D mapping using autonomous vehicles, will be required to address these questions.

Applications are being invited from individuals wishing to join the scoping group that will develop the science case for consideration by NERC.

Scoping group meeting

Professor Paul Tyler of the University of Southampton has agreed to chair the scoping group. Members will be selected by NERC via an open call for self-nomination. It is anticipated that the scoping group will be made up of around 10-12 individuals and will have an appropriate scientific balance. Members of the scoping group are expected to act as representatives of their scientific disciplines, and to act in the interests of the scientific community as a whole, rather than representing personal or institutional interests. The composition of the group will be decided by NERC with input from the chair of the scoping group and a representative of NERC's Strategic Programme Advisory Group (SPAG). NERC reserves the right to appoint members to the scoping group who haven't applied to achieve the balance of representation required.

The scoping group will convene for a two-day meeting, which all members must attend. The group will be tasked with producing a science case by the end of May 2016. This meeting will take place on 6-7 April 2016 at a venue in the London area. By applying to join this scoping group you are confirming your availability to attend the two-day meeting.

If the proposed research programme is approved, members of the scoping group will be able to apply for funding, subject to normal NERC eligibility rules.


Applicants should complete an application form and submit it via email to Jessica Surma, at, by 16:00 on Tuesday 8 March 2016. Successful applicants will be informed of the outcome on 21 March 2016.

NERC will cover all reasonable travel and subsistence costs associated with attending the two-day meeting in line with NERC policy.

Application form (Word, 28KB)

For further information please contact:

Jessica Surma