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5,000 rare species in Pacific threatened by deep-sea mining

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An area of the Pacific sea bed targeted for the world's first deep-sea mining operations is home to more than 5,000 species, many of which scientists said are unlikely to be found anywhere else in the world.

A team at the Natural History Museum found that nine in ten of the species were unknown to science.

Crabs, shrimps, worms and sea cucumbers were among the organisms found after an analysis of 100,000 records taken by ships dating back to 1980 in an area between Hawaii and Mexico known as Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ). The specimens had been collected by underwater remote-controlled vehicles and by dragging boxes along the bottom of the sea bed.

The area is significant because it is likely to be ground zero for a new era of commercial deep-sea mining.

A deep-sea squat lobster in the genus Munidopsis

SMARTEX PROJECT/NATURAL ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH COUNCIL

Psychropotes longicauda, also known as the "gummy squirrel"

SMARTEX PROJECT/NATURAL ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH COUNCIL

The Pacific island state of Nauru and Canadian mining firm The Metals Company triggered a "two-year rule" at international sea-bed talks in 2021, meaning that if countries do not reach an international agreement to ban deep-sea mining by July 9, work could begin next year.

The Metals Company has previously told investors it wants to start "small-scale production" next year. After the July deadline has passed, it would be free to obtain licences to start extracting nodules of nickel, copper and cobalt from the area's sea floor.

The company argues that such mining is less environmentally harmful than mining on land, which destroys rainforests and other habitats. Conservationists argue that it exposes marine life, already under pressure from climate change and overfishing, to a new threat.

Crabs, shrimps, worms and sea cucumbers were among the species found in an analysis of the sea bed

SMARTEX PROJECT/NATURAL ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH COUNCIL

Adrian Glover at the Natural History Museum led an international team that looked at the CCZ, an area roughly twice the size of India.

They examined more than 100,000 records of creatures on the sea bed, from which they identified 5,142 individual species. The effort, the most comprehensive look yet at the area's biodiversity, found that between 88 and 92 per cent of these species were undescribed by scientists.

Glover said the known species included "crazy worms" such as the reddish-green Neanthes goodayi, a ragworm that lives inside nodules, and Psychropotes longicauda, a sea cucumber dubbed the "gummy squirrel" that crawls on the sea bed hoovering up plankton.

Writing in the journal Current Biology, the team said the region contained "significant undescribed biodiversity". Based on the records they examined, and given that large tracts of the vast area have no data at all, the researchers estimated there could be more than 8,000 species living there.

International talks on rules for commercial deep-sea mining have been ongoing since 2016. Despite some countries supporting a moratorium, none has been agreed, most recently at a meeting of the intergovernmental group that rules on the sea bed, the International Seabed Authority (ISA).

The Metals Company said this month that it was "aligned" with the 167 countries of the ISA and did not want to submit its commercial plans for the CCZ until a "mining code" for deep-sea extraction is in place. Nonetheless, it said its subsidiary, Nauru Ocean Resources Inc, might exercise its legal right to submit a plan before the code is agreed.

Ariana Densham, head of oceans at Greenpeace UK, said: "This new evidence showing the very area at the centre of the deep-sea mining debate is absolutely teeming with new and undiscovered life — some of which thrives only in the fragile and undisturbed ecosystems established there — has to be a dealbreaker for those governments like the UK still entertaining this industry."

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