Race to exploit the world’s seabed set to wreak havoc on marine life

Seabed Papua New Guinea
Seabed Papua New Guinea ISMAPNG

The scaly-foot snail is one of Earth’s strangest creatures. It lives more than 2,300 metres below the surface of the sea on a trio of deep-sea hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

Here it has evolved a remarkable form of protection against the crushing, grim conditions found at these depths, it grows a shell made of iron.

scaly-foot snail

Discovered in 1999, the snail has attracted the interest of US defence, whose scientists are now studying its genes in a bid to discover how it grows its own metal armour. The researchers will have to move quickly, however, industrial groups plan to explore the seabed around the vents that provide homes for scaly-foot snails. Should they proceed, and mine the seabed’s veins of metals and minerals, a large chunk of the snail’s home base will be destroyed and the existence of this remarkable little creature will be threatened.

This threat comes not just from seabed mining – which is set to expand dramatically in coming years – but from fish farming, desalination plant construction, shipping, submarine cable laying, cruise tourism and the building of offshore wind farms.

On land, we are already exploiting mineral resources to the full, at the same time, the need for rare elements and metals is becoming increasingly important to supply green technologies such as wind and solar power plants.

Jean-Baptiste Jouffray, Stockholm University

This is “blue acceleration“, the term that is used by Jouffray and his co-authors to describe the recent rapid rise in marine industrialisation, a trend that has brought increasing ocean acidification, marine heating, coral reef destruction, and plastic pollution in its wake.

Article 76 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows countries to claim seabed that lies beyond the 200 miles of a nation’s exclusive economic zone. Many seabed grabbers include small island states that are trying to become large ocean states in the process. The Cook islands in the South Pacific has claimed an area of seabed that is 1,700 times its land surface. Seabed mining for minerals is also scheduled to begin.

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