Discovery of vibrant deep-sea life prompts new worries over seabed mining

Date: September 21, 2018

Source: Nature
Author: Amy Maxmen

“Gummy squirrels,” single-celled organisms the size of softballs and strange worms thrive in a Pacific Ocean zone some considered an underwater desert.

Deep in the eastern central Pacific Ocean, on a stretch of sea floor nearly as big as the continental United States, researchers are discovering species faster than they can name them. And they are exploring newfound fossil beds of whales that lived up to 16 million years ago.

The findings — many reported for the first time last week at the Deep-Sea Biology Symposium in Monterey, California — have come as a shock. Some scientists had thought these vast underwater plains, 4,000–5,500 metres below the ocean surface, were relatively lifeless. But that is changing just as nations and corporations prepare to mine this patch of the Pacific sea bed for cobalt, manganese and other elements for use in technologies such as smartphones and electric cars.

Researchers are now pushing the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the body that oversees mining in international waters, to limit environmental damage from future activity. The ISA, which is developing rules for mining in the ocean, is accepting comments on a draft plan until 30 September. Its goal is to release final rules by 2020, clearing the way for mining to start.

“What we do right now is going to have huge implications for decades to come,” says Diva Amon, a deep-sea biologist at the Natural History Museum in London. “We have a chance to do things as rigorously and responsibly as we can.”

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