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    What is the Charlie-Gibbs Marine Protected Area?

    The Charlie-Gibbs Marine Protected Area (CG-MPA) is part of the first set of six new conservation areas that has ever been established in international waters in the North Atlantic. This zone includes all waters seawards of the 200 mile so-called Exclusive Economic Zone of coastal States, and all the seafloor beyond the limits of national jurisdiction on the continental shelves. The southern part of the CG-MPA was announced in 2010 by the OSPAR Commission to protect the unique natural features associated with the Mid-Atlantic Ridge south of the so-called Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone. In this area polar and southern waters meet, and form a permanent but mobile front in the surface waters with a particularly high productivity and species richness.

    The declaration of the CG-MPA demonstrates that the conservation of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction is possible and has set a well respected example for the rest of the world.



    The Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone

    The Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone (CGFZ) is the largest geological fault in the northern Mid-Atlantic Ridge between Iceland and the Azores. Its spectacular topography has been formed by the geological forces that pull the American and African continental plates apart and allow fresh magma to rise. The fracture cuts across this ridge for 2000 km in east-west direction with two parallel valleys and ridges. From the tops of adjacent seamounts at 700-800 m depth the terrain plunges down to the seafloor at around 4500 m. It provides the only deepwater and -faunal exchange between the North-East and North-West Atlantic. However, the deep fauna on the eastern and western flanks of the ridge still remain fairly isolated from each other.




    Mid-ocean ridges across the planet

    Mid-ocean ridges, are the youngest and most active zones between the continental plates, where new ocean floor is built. They are by far the largest topographic features on the planet stretching continuously for 74.000 km in length – that is almost twice the circumference of the earth! Among these the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is a huge mountain system that extends for 10.000 km from the Arctic Basin to the Southern Ocean. With elevations of the scale of the European Alps the ridge has a profound impact on ocean currents and greatly increases the diversity of ocean habitats.



    Why is the Charlie-Gibbs MPA special?

    Figure 1. Pathways associated with the transformation of warm subtropical waters into colder subpolar and polar waters in the northern North Atlantic. Along the subpolar gyre pathway the red to yellow transition indicates the cooling to Labrador Sea Water, which flows back to the subtropical gyre in the west as an intermediate depth current (yellow). The green square shows the position of the front in the course of one year.   Credit: ©Jack Cook, Woods Hole OI

    The varied topography of this zone together with the subpolar frontal area in the surface waters creates many different habitats and ocean conditions. Along the ridge, these include hard bottom habitats provided by seamounts and other elevations of various extent and steepness, soft sediment areas in the rift valleys and trenches including an abyssal plain at the foot of the ridge. The Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone is the deepest of several fracture zones, which allows for an east-west exchange of deep-sea fauna.

    Coinciding with the location of the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone, in an overlaying front warm, nutrient-poor water from the south meets cold nutrient-rich water from the north. In this mixing zone the overall biological productivity, biomass and species pool is enhanced and supplies all the food web down to the deep sea with biomass. So far, 40 cold-water coral taxa, 53 species of cephalopods, 80 species of demersal fish – including 44 species of deepwater sharks, 22 species of seabirds, and 13 cetacean species have been identified. As the front moves several degrees in latitude north and south seasonally, it fertilizes a large, otherwise low productive region along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.



    Science on the Ridge

    Little was known about the Mid-Atlantic Ridge ecosystems and even less about the area near the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone until the international Mar-Eco project, a project of the Census of Marine Life campaign, was launched in 2001. For ten years scientists from 16 countries equipped with submarines, remotely controlled vehicles (ROV), traditional and high tech nets and other technologies tried to find answers for the most burning questions: how do the ocean currents work along the ridge? How important are the areas north of the Azores and around the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone for the survival of certain species and the health of the ocean? The follow-up project ECOMAR particularly has been investigating the north-south and east-west differences in the ridge ecosystems around the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone.

    The groundbreaking results were crucial to propose the Charlie-Gibbs Marine Protected Area.



    Ridge Life

    Scientists were amazed about the diverse and abundant life they found. They were able to show that increased plankton and fish production at the front attracts a fascinating mix of migratory species, whales and seabirds are a regular sight. When the remains of that food trickles down to the deep it fuels diverse communities around seamounts, rocky walls and plains with soft sediment. Cold-water corals and deep-sea sponges thrive, colourful worms and weird looking fishes are regularly encountered with many species still to be described.
    The shallower summits of the mountain peaks host seasonal aggregations of certain highly valued near-bottom fish species such as giant redfish, roundnose grenadier, alfonsino and orange roughy. The pelagic waters are highly important for the larvae of ridge fauna and deepwater and pelagic fishes. 99 species of pelagic fish have been identified to concentrate particularly over the northern Mid-Atlantic Ridge north of the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone.

    Please use our EXPLORER to learn more about species and habitats.



    Why does the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone need protection?

    The main threats for the Mid-Atlantic Ridge ecosystems known to date have come from three decades of deep-sea fishing for sensitive, slow-growing species and the use of heavy fishing gear, which is operated in contact with the seafloor. This can destroy the thousands of years old coral stands, fragile sponges and other sessile invertebrates in a matter of moments.

    Species in the deep and cold ocean waters are especially vulnerable to human impact. Many have similar or longer life spans than humans, they grow and mature very slowly and have only few offspring at irregular intervals. Examples of commercially harvested species are deep-sea sharks (60-70 years), roundnose grenadier (>60 years) or orange roughy (>125 years). Their stocks have been damaged in the past and may need decades to recover, if at all. Future threats are deep-sea mining of minerals and in particular the impacts of climate change.



    Who can protect the international High Seas?

    The governance of areas beyond national jurisdiction is less rigid than in areas under national jurisdiction. However there are conventions and authorities that provide a framework for international waters. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines a set of rights of coastal States in the waters adjacent to the coast. Beyond these zones of national jurisdiction, all waters are considered to be High Seas, or international waters. Here human activities like fishing, shipping and scientific research are poorly regulated while the mineral resources of the seafloor beyond national jurisdiction belong to mankind as a whole with any revenue to be shared. 

    Based on UNCLOS, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) regulates the exploitation of mineral resources "for the benefit of mankind", and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) aims to control and prevent marine pollution from shipping. Biodiversity is addressed by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and fisheries by the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC). Most important for the conservation of the marine environment in the North-East Atlantic is the OSPAR Convention, which guides the cooperation of its Contracting Parties and with other multilateral conventions and regulatory bodies.




    Who is OSPAR?

    OSPAR is the regional seas convention working towards the protection of the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic and its regions: Arctic Waters, the greater North Sea including the English Channel, the Celtic Seas, the Bay of Biscay and Iberian Coast, and the wider Atlantic including the waters surrounding the Azores.

    The Contracting Parties to the OSPAR Convention are Belgium, Denmark, the European Community, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

    OSPAR aims to protect, conserve and restore the ecosystems and the biological diversity of the maritime area, which are affected by human activities. It has been a driving forum for identifying and designating the world’s first High Seas Marine Protected Areas including the Charlie-Gibbs MPA.



    Protecting the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone

    Marine protected areas (MPAs) are long-term management tools designed to safeguard habitats, species and ecosystem processes by protecting an area from threats such as fishing, waste dumping, oil and gas extraction, mining of minerals, bioprospecting, and others.

    In 2003, the OSPAR Commission agreed to establish an ecologically coherent network of well-managed MPAs including areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) by 2010. Based on a proposal promoted by WWF and the Netherlands, OSPAR Contracting Parties agreed in principle to establish the Charlie-Gibbs MPA as a first OSPAR MPA in ABNJ in 2008. Further nominations originating from a scientific study initiated and financed by Germany as lead for the OSPAR MPA group completed the first suite of MPAs in ABNJ to cover a representative set of areas. Five of the six sites were finally adopted by the Ministerial Meeting in 2010, namely the Mid-Atlantic Ridge north of the Azores as well as the Milne, Altair, Antialtair and Josephine Seamounts. The northern section of the proposed Charlie-Gibbs MPA, that is part of the Reykjanes Ridge, was excluded until claims of sovereign rights over this area will be settled.



    Who was Charlie-Gibbs anyways?


    Surprisingly, "Charlie Gibbs" is not a person's name. In fact the area was first named the "Charlie Fracture Zone" in 1967 after the U.S. Coast Guard’s ocean weather station "Charlie" in the area. The name "Gibbs" actually stems from the American naval ship "Josiah Willard Gibbs" that was used to execute the first extensive survey of the area. Josiah Willard Gibbs was an American theoretical physicist, chemist, and mathematician. So the name is actually a compound word – that's why Charlie-Gibbs is written with a hyphen.


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