Deep seabed mining could destroy valuable biodiversity that hasn't even been discovered yet
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The seabed and deep sea is the last frontier on Earth, the vast majority of it unexplored by humans. We have more detailed maps of Mars than we have of the seafloor. Some deep-sea communities, such as those found on and around hydrothermal vents, are barely understood. First discovered in 1977, these hydrothermal vents are like underwater hot springs, spouting out clouds of metal sulphides from within the Earth. As the hot clouds cool and solidify, they create towering chimneys, known as “black smokers”. The organisms that live there are like nothing else on Earth, as they draw their energy not from the sun but from the chemicals gushing from the vents. These thriving communities live in an extreme environment – one that is dark, deep (up to 5,000m depth), hot (up to 400°C), and usually strongly acidic, yet hosts an extraordinary array of life.33 Over 700 vent species have been discovered, and due to factors such as geographical isolation, many are unique to their particular regions or even locations. Species include giant tube worms, crabs, shrimps and fish.34 On average, two new species were discovered every month for the 25 years up to 200235, and we’ve still barely scratched the surface.
The deep sea is also the largest reservoir of marine genetic resources, and is of major interest to pharmaceutical companies, a number of which already hold patents for products discovered in the deep.36 Enzymes from hydrothermal vent species are estimated to have an annual commercial value of $150m US dollars.37 Despite their intrinsic ecological and scientific value and their potential benefit to humankind, deep seabed mining could destroy these genetic resources before they are fully understood or even discovered38 – resources that could, for example, hold cures for diseases such as cancer.