Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast have discovered that the scaly-foot snail is the first species to be declared endangered as a result of deep-sea mining.

Since 2016, the Queen’s researchers have contributed to the first official Red List, which covers assessments of animals living in deeps hydrothermal vents in the Indian Ocean. On 18 July 2019, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added the scaly-foot snail to its Red List of Threatened and Endangered Species.

According to the research the team published in Nature Ecology & Evolution on 22 July 2019, the scaly-foot snail is found at three hydrothermal vents in the Indian Ocean at depths of up to 2,900m, occupying an area roughly equivalent to two American football fields.

Two of these three vents are currently under mining exploration licences, and even one exploratory mining operation in these areas could damage the vents or cover the snails in clouds of sediment, potentially destroying populations of the animals.

Queen’s senior lecturer and associate director Julia Sigwart said: “The deep-sea is home to thousands of species and new species are being discovered all the time. These deep-sea marine animals like the scaly-foot snail are out of sight, out of mind, but they are still threatened by human activities.

“It is crucial we are aware of the immediacy and potential impacts of deep-sea mining. This Red List designation for these species will enable appropriate international protection for the most vulnerable of creatures.”

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Sigwart told Mining Technology: “The Endangered listing of the Sea Pangolin is objective, international recognition of the rare and vulnerable status of this species.

“Mining at or near active hydrothermal vents where rare species live would do irreversible damage to their populations. Regulators should take steps to protect these fragile biodiversity hotspots.”

The deep-sea contains more rare earth metals, nickel and cobalt than all land reserves combined. With new technological developments, the demand for these metals is rising, giving rise to hope that the deep-sea may provide supplies. There have been a number of debates around the potential environmental damage of deep-sea mining however, as a growing number of companies explore the commercial viability of deep-sea operations.

On 4 July 2019, Greenpeace published the report In Deep Water: The Emerging Threat Of Deep Sea Mining, which argued that deep-sea drilling could cause “severe and potentially irreversible damage” to the oceans and marine life.

Greenpeace ocean campaigner Louisa Casson said: “The health of our oceans is closely linked to our own survival. Unless we act now to protect them, deep-sea mining could have devastating consequences for marine life and humankind.

“The deep sea is the largest ecosystem on the planet and home to unique creatures that we barely understand. It should be studied not exploited.”

In response to the report, Canadian mining company DeepGreen said: “We cannot afford to simplify complex and controversial issues. To make good decisions, we need to think through different pathways across different spatial and temporal time scales.

“Renewables, electric transport and industry all require a massive new injection of base metals. But mining the metals—whether on land or on the seabed—is fundamentally a destructive and energy-intensive process.

“More metal production will generate more COemissions and will cause more habitat loss and degradation. Yet, over the next 30-50 years, a world without mining is not an option.”

DeepGreen told Mining Technology: “It is important to differentiate between the different types of deep sea mining being considered by the International Seabed Authority.

“The species and levels of biodiversity in fields of polymetallic nodules in the deep ocean, where DeepGreen proposes to operate, are entirely different than those around sea floor hydrothermal vents, where life began and where the scaly-foot snail is found. Extracting minerals from hydrothermal vents is impactful and requires breaking them apart and digging with heavy machinery.

“Polymetallic nodules, on the other hand, sit atop the seabed and require no digging, blasting or drilling. If the scaly-foot snail is endangered then there should absolutely be no mining activities near its habitat.”