2003 Update

Reprinted from InterRidge News 12.1 (Apr. 2003)

The InterRidge Biology Working group, co-chaired by Kim Juniper (Canada) and Françoise Gaill (France), in collaboration with environmental lawyer Lyle Glowka (Germany), is developing a Code of Conduct for the sustainable use of hydrothermal vent sites by researchers and tour operators. A draft document will be presented to the InterRidge Steering Committee at its annual meeting in June 2003 in Tokyo. The Steering Committee will be asked to provide feedback on the document, so that the Code recognises the requirements of the research community as well as the need for conservation and protection measures. It is our ultimate goal that this Code of Conduct be adopted by InterRidge and national programs and agencies involved in mid-ocean ridge research. In this article we present the reasoning behind the development of the Code of Conduct and provide an update on the elements that it will likely contain.

The Problem
The more accessible hydrothermal vent sites in the world?s oceans, both within and beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, are potentially threatened by human activities. Activities most likely to involve hydrothermal vent systems and their associated biological communities are seabed mining for associated polymetallic sulphide deposits, submarine-based tourism (SBT) and marine scientific research (MSR).

Of these, MSR and SBT pose the most immediate threat to hydrothermal vent systems and their associated biological communities. Use conflicts are also increasingly common. As natural resource-based activities MSR and SBT need to be placed on a sustainable footing in order to conserve biodiversity, maintain the scientific value of the most accessible sites and to minimise conflicts.

Why a Code of Conduct?
With limited exceptions, at present, international and national legal frameworks do not offer definitive tools to place MSR and SBT activities on a sustainable basis and to minimise use conflicts at hydrothermal vent sites. Therefore the user community ? the marine scientific research community and tour operators ? should take the lead in ensuring conservation and sustainable use and minimising use conflicts.

A code of conduct could have a supporting role to play in jurisdictions where national legislation already exists for vessel clearance, marine scientific research or conservation measures such as marine protected areas. A code could be applied, either as an intermediate step towards the application of more detailed rules or to supplement the application of existing legislation.

A code of conduct may also be useful in situations where MSR and SBT activities involve hydrothermal vents in jurisdictions where no national legislation exists or is planned. By this logic a code could also be applied to activities within the International Seabed Area beyond limits of national jurisdiction.

Voluntary approaches within the user community involving a code of conduct along with self- and peer policing, could be the most expeditious way to minimise the environmental impacts and conflicts that MSR and SBT activities may pose to hydrothermal vents and their associated biological communities. The need for further regulatory measures at international or national levels could be averted if they were widely adopted and applied.

The Code: Its Content and Format
We are proposing that the Code will consist of a concise statement of principles applicable to MSR and SBT activities, followed by a corresponding set of Operating Guidelines applicable to organisations and individuals operating generally. They could be adapted and applied at specific sites as well. The Guidelines could function as benchmarks against which to judge the performance of the organisations undertaking marine scientific research, their affiliated researchers and tour operators. They could provide principles with which to develop institutional environmental management systems. They may also provide principles for regulatory agencies developing or applying vessel clearance and other regulatory procedures or conservation measures such as marine protected areas.

Development of the Code
Elements of the code are being drawn from a number of different sources. The report of the InterRidge Workshop on the Management and Conservation of Hydrothermal Vent Ecosystems provided important principles related to MSR activities. Another important source was the Workshop on the Azores Triple Junction Hydrothermal Vents Marine Protected Area Management Plan.

A number of elements draw heavily from or are identical to the Code for Environmental Management of Marine Mining, developed by Dr. Derek Ellis for the International Marine Minerals Society (IMMS), and adopted by the IMMS on 2 November 2001.

Finally, the Code will reflect the comments and experience of researchers, environmental lawyers and tour operators through a process of review, comments and editing from March 2003.

To whom would the Code apply?
The Code could apply to organisations and affiliated individuals undertaking MSR and SBT activities at hydrothermal vents located within and beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.

How would the Code function?
The Code?s application would be voluntary. The Code would provide a framework and benchmarks for implementation by national research programs, and by extension to their affiliated or sponsored individual researchers, and tour operators. The principles embodied in the Code could provide the basis for institutional codes of conduct and environmental management systems. The Code?s framework and benchmarks could provide the basis for stakeholders in government, NGOs and communities to appraise actual and intended conduct at hydrothermal vent sites.

In the context of MSR, funding agencies and project or peer review committees could use the Code as part of their tool-kit of screening criteria against which to judge the merits of a proposed project. Post-project reporting could demonstrate the extent to which the Code was complied with. Compliance with the code could be used in considerations for future funding.

Research organisations and tour operators adopting the Code or following its Principles and Operating Guidelines would be encouraged to publicise their actions.

Basic Principles
The operation guidelines of the code would be developed around 4 basic principles. Organisations and individuals undertaking MSR and SBT activities adopting the Code of Conduct commit themselves to:

1) Identify and comply with international, national and sub-national laws and policies;
2) Minimise or eliminate adverse environmental impacts through all stages of an activity;
3) Minimise or eliminate actual or potential conflicts or interference with existing or planned MSR activities; and
4) Monitor, evaluate and report on the Code?s application.

Code Review
It is intended that the InterRidge Steering Committee would review the Code after five years, with a focus toward possible amendments based on experience with its implementation. A consultation with national programs and the tourism industry as well as other stakeholders involved with hydrothermal vent sites is envisioned.
We welcome feedback from the InterRidge community at all points in the process of drafting and discussion of the code.