A recent examination of environmental surveys conducted in the Pacific Ocean has revealed the existence of more than 5,000 previously unknown species residing on the ocean floor. These remarkable findings come from an untouched region known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), stretching across 1.7 million square miles between Mexico and Hawaii, which has been identified as a potential hotspot for deep-sea mining.
This comprehensive documentation of biodiversity in the CCZ marks the first time such an endeavor has been undertaken. It is of utmost importance, as imminent contracts for deep-sea mining in this pristine area raise concerns about the potential extinction risk faced by these species.
Researchers exploring the CCZ have identified a majority of animals that are completely new to science, with nearly all of them being exclusive to the region. Only a small number, including a carnivorous sponge and a sea cucumber, have been observed elsewhere.
Seventeen deep-sea mining contractors, supported by countries like the UK, US, and China, have been granted mining exploration contracts, covering an area of 745,000 square miles in the CCZ. Their aim is to extract valuable minerals like cobalt, manganese, and nickel, some of which are in high demand by the alternative energy sector.
In July, the International Seabed Authority, a quasi-UN organization based in Jamaica responsible for regulating deep-sea mining, will begin accepting applications for exploitation from these companies.
To comprehend the potential impact on this delicate ecosystem and its newfound inhabitants, an international team of scientists has compiled the first-ever “CCZ checklist.” This checklist, featured in the journal Current Biology, encompasses 5,578 distinct species, with an estimated 88% to 92% never encountered before.
Muriel Rabone, the lead author of the published paper and a deep-sea ecologist at the Natural History Museum (NHM), emphasized the shared responsibility of humanity to understand and safeguard the remarkable biodiversity found on our planet.
To study and collect specimens from the ocean floor, biologists have joined research expeditions in the Pacific, employing remote-controlled vehicles to navigate depths ranging from 4,000 to 6,000 meters.
Among the astonishing deep-sea creatures discovered is a species nicknamed the “gummy squirrel” due to its jelly-like appearance and prominent tail. The CCZ is also home to exquisite glass sponges, some of which resemble vases. The most prevalent categories of creatures in the CCZ include arthropods, worms, members of the spider family, and echinoderms, such as spiky invertebrates like sea urchins and sponges.
As the approval for deep-sea mining approaches, it is crucial to collaborate with mining companies to ensure that their activities are carried out in a manner that minimizes their impact on the natural world, emphasized Glover, a researcher involved in the study.