New research from Queen’s University Belfast has led to 184 deep-sea species being added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, primarily due to the effects of deep-sea mining.
The IUCN is one of the world’s most important conservation authorities and its seven ‘red list’ categories indicate which species are endangered or on the brink of extinction.
By examining mollusc species that live in hydrothermal vents, the team of researchers from the UK, Japan, Canada and the USA found 184 “vent-endemic” species, while establishing that 62% of the species are listed as ‘threatened’: 39 are ‘critically endangered’, 32 are listed as ‘endangered’ and 43 are ‘vulnerable’. “In contrast, the 25 species that are fully protected from deep-sea mining by local conservation measures are assessed as Least Concern, and a further 45 species are listed as Near Threatened, where some subpopulations face mining threats while others lie within protected areas,” according to the study.
The findings were published in a paper called ‘A Global Red List for Hydrothermal Vent Molluscs’ in Frontiers in Marine Science.
Hydrothermal vents can be found on the seafloor, where they tend to be near volcanically active places. They discharge geothermally heated water and act as unique deep sea ecosystems whose density of life equals that of tropical rainforests.
The remoteness of these special ecosystems means that they are understudied. However, the need for more exploration comes with the growing industrial interest in the deep sea, including deep-sea mining for metals.
“We focused on assessing species found at hydrothermal vents, as these areas are increasingly targeted for their natural resources, and we wanted to better understand the threat this poses to the rich marine life found there. As one of the dominant species groups at vent habitats and following on from the assessment of the Scaly-foot Snail as Endangered in 2019, we focused our study on molluscs,” recalled Elin Thomas, lead researcher and Queen’s University Belfast PhD student.
She added: “Almost two-thirds of the molluscs are listed as threatened, which illustrates the urgent need to protect these species from extinction. Indian Ocean vent molluscs are under the greatest extinction risk, with 100% of species listed in threatened categories and 60% as Critically Endangered. This coincides with the distribution of mining contracts granted by the International Seabed Authority, highlighting the risk that mining poses to vent species and clearly demonstrating why we need these data. In fact, we found that seabed management and mining regulation consistently had the greatest impact on a species’ extinction risk so we need regulations in place as a matter of urgency. This research should be used to develop new policies to protect these species before it is too late.”
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Photography courtesy of NOAA.