Amongst the riches of the seabed, deeply embedded into its ecosystems, are minerals such as copper, cobalt, nickel and manganese. Their potential industrial value means that prospectors are keen to extract them, so a new, highly speculative, deep-sea mining industry is emerging.
Three types of mining are planned:
- Sucking up polymetallic nodules from the abyssal plains. Polymetallic nodules support a vast range of suspension feeders and sediment communities.
- Stripping cobalt crusts from seamounts. Seamounts are biodiversity hotspots, supporting complex ecosystems from their surface to their base.
- Extracting polymetallic sulphides from hydrothermal vents. Deep-sea hydrothermal vents support some of the most unique and important ecological communities known to science.
There is a real possibility that deep-sea mining will soon be permitted, with exploratory contracts already having been issued over 1.3 million square kilometers of the high seas (areas of the ocean outside national jurisdiction) by the International Seabed Authority. The total area affected would be far larger.
The areas of the deep sea where these contracts have been issued support some of the most biodiverse and scientifically important ecosystems on Earth. Scientists have warned that deep-sea mining would cause permanent loss of biodiversity in the deep sea but the scale of the loss is currently unknown. Most of the species and ecosystems in the areas where mining would occur have not been well studied nor have the potential consequences of mining to these and wider ocean systems.