Scientists find 5,000 new species in Pacific, warn of mining risk

A study has identified more than 5,000 new species living in deep-sea Pacific habitats in a region known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a seabed that will be targeted for mining for years to come.

The zone extends about 6 million square kilometers (2.3 million square miles) between Hawaii and Mexico.

Researchers said Thursday they had identified 5,578 species in the zone, 92 percent of which were new to science.

“There are 438 named, known species from the CCZ,” said the study’s lead author, Muriel Rabone, a deep-sea ecologist at the Natural History Museum London. “But then there are 5,142 unnamed species with informal names.”

“These are species that have not yet been described, which means we may know the genus but cannot identify the species. It’s actually a lot more than I thought.”

Most of the recorded species were arthropods, invertebrates with exoskeletons made of chitin, such as shrimp, crabs and horseshoe crabs. Others were worms in the annelids and nematoda groups.

The scientists used taxonomic surveys for the area that began decades ago, as well as data made available by the International Seabed Authority, which has asked companies interested in mining to collect and share environmental information.

The findings illustrate that “the CCZ represents significant undescribed biodiversity” and “the novelty of the region at deep taxonomic levels,” said the study, published in the journal Current Biology.

‘Knowledge deficiency’

The zone, which receives little sunlight, has become the world’s largest mineral exploration area. The seabed contains deposits of nickel, manganese, copper, zinc and cobalt, according to the study.

In July, the International Seabed Authority, an intergovernmental body that oversees “mineral resource activities,” will begin accepting applications from companies seeking to mine the ocean floor.

In September, a mining manager told ABC News that his company could extract the minerals without damaging the seafloor.

“I mean, why on earth shouldn’t we explore new frontiers? We need to mix it up,” Gerard Barron, the CEO of The Metals Company, a Canadian-based company exploring ways to mine the CCZ, told the US broadcaster.

“The question is, what is this impact? How can we limit those effects? And how does that relate to the known effects of activities on land? And I think that’s a decision society faces,” he said.

But researchers say more research needs to be done to assess how to protect those ecosystems.

“Taxonomy is the main knowledge gap we have in studying these unique habitats. We need to know what lives in these regions before we can begin to understand how to protect such ecosystems,” said co-author Adrian Glover, a credit researcher at the Natural History Museum London.

“We are on the verge of approval for some of the largest deep-sea mining operations,” he said. “It is imperative that we work with the companies that want to mine these resources to ensure that such activities are conducted in a way that limits the impact on the natural world.”

‘Big risk’

According to the study, mineral exploration began in the 1960s and there are 17 mineral exploration contracts covering an area of ​​1.2 million square kilometers (463,000 sq mi) with companies from various countries, including Canada, China, the United Kingdom and the US.

“If there is mining activity and we don’t know what species are there, it’s a big risk,” Rabone told media.

“It’s really important to follow that basic taxonomy, to figure out what species are out there, and that forms the basis for the next stage, which is then ecology — what are the [species’] functional properties? Is there some role in the ecosystem where if they are mined there will be a weird cascading effect? she said.