A new species from a new order of Cnidaria collected at 4,100 meters in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone that lives on sponge stalks attached to nodules. Photo by Craig Smith and Diva Amon, ABYSSLINE Project

A new species from a new order of Cnidaria collected at 4,100 meters in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone that lives on sponge stalks attached to nodules. Photo by Craig Smith and Diva Amon, ABYSSLINE Project

Thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface lies a hidden world of undiscovered species and unique seabed habitats — as well as a vast untapped store of natural resources including valuable metals and rare minerals, the University of Hawai‘i reported last week.

Technology and infrastructure development worldwide is dramatically increasing demand for these resources, which are key components in everything from cars and modern buildings to computers and smartphones. This demand has catalyzed interest in mining huge areas of the deep-sea floor.

In a paper published earlier this month in Science, oceanography professor Craig Smith from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa along with the Center for Ocean Solutions and co-authors from leading institutions around the world propose a strategy for balancing commercial extraction of deep-sea resources with protection of diverse seabed habitats. The paper is intended to inform upcoming discussions by the International Seabed Authority and set the groundwork for future deep-sea environmental protection and mining regulations.

“Deep-sea areas targeted by mining claims frequently harbor high biodiversity and fragile habitats, and may have very slow rates of recovery from physical disturbance,” Smith said.

Smith led a team of scientists that helped the ISA design Marine Protected Areas for the deep sea’s first regional environmental management plan in 2012. Located in an area of the Pacific Ocean known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, the plan honored existing mining exploration claims while protecting delicate habitats by creating a network of MPAs. The CCZ serves as a model for how future deep-sea ecosystem management could unfold.

“Our purpose is to point out that the ISA has an important opportunity to create networks of no-mining MPAs as part of the regulatory framework they are considering at their July meeting,” said Lisa Wedding, one of the paper’s authors and an early career science fellow at Stanford University. “The establishment of regional MPA networks in the deep-sea would benefit both mining and biodiversity interests by providing more economic certainty and ecosystem sustainability.”

Protecting deep-seabed habitats