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Systematic Characterisation and Archiving of megafauNa on a regional scale in a Deep-sea area threatened by mining

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SCAN-Deep (Systematic Characterisation and Archiving of megafauNa on a regional scale in a Deep-sea area threatened by mining)

Reporting period: 2018-03-14 to 2020-03-13

The worldwide demand for metals and rare-earth elements is increasing, fuelled by developing
economies and the growth of high-technology green industries. The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean, a ~6 million km2 region of abyssal deep sea, contains vast reserves of polymetallic nodules, potato-sized accretions of minerals that sit on the seafloor surface. These nodules are a huge potential source of cobalt, copper, manganese and nickel (amongst other key and rare metals), and this has led to recent and rapid growing commercial interest in mining this region. From a conservation perspective, there is a clear and pressing need to quickly improve our understanding of the biodiversity of the CCZ, the largest mineral-resource exploration
area in the world, before exploitation commences.

Under international law, the CCZ lies in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ), and thus falls under the legal and regulatory mandate of the International Seabed Authority (ISA). Sixteen
nodule-mining exploration contract areas have been approved by the ISA within the CCZ, each up to 75,000 km2 in area, despite an almost complete absence of baseline data on the abundance, diversity and ecology of the large animals (megafauna: >2 cm in size, such as cnidarians and echinoderms). The few studies conducted suggest that 70-90% of species are new to science. The megafauna constitute an important component of the biodiversity in the abyssal CCZ, and play a significant role in deep-sea ecosystem function including carbon sequestration and nutrient cycling. It has been hypothesised that nodule-mining operations will have a drastic ‘near-field’ impact on the megafauna within directly mined areas, as well as impacts in ‘far-field’ regions subjected to mining plume deposition.

The ISA has stipulated that prior to exploitation, a benthic biological baseline study must be undertaken for each exploration contract area. However, these studies are being conducted separately within each contract area with few of the results made open access, with little information on data standards and with almost no synthesis or collaboration between contractors over the entire CCZ. Furthermore, this lack of synthesis extends to the Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEIs), proposed ‘marine protected areas’ that are set aside for preservation based on a precautionary approach. This project has led to a better understanding of which species inhabit the vast CCZ region (regardless of contract area), and has effectively communicated those results, enabling more informed decision-making and the effective management of this vast area of the ocean.
Research during the project period was largely comprised of the amassing of imagery and megafaunal samples from the CCZ, which were then sorted and identified. A large, important, and highly novel image dataset of over 630 megafauna species, has been produced, as well as an associated dataset of hundreds of genetic barcodes. A bonus to the project was the discovery of abundant and diverse fossils in the CCZ, which are also being characterised and will be communicated upon publication of the peer-reviewed paper. Fifteen peer-reviewed articles have been submitted or published, including several species descriptions.

Communicating the scientific process and results of this project has also monopolised the project time, but was essential given the importance and relevance to key management decisions being taken during the course of this project as well as in the near future. This included presenting to the International Seabed Authority, national delegates, representatives of the deep-seabed mining industry, fellow academics, and civil society at 35 key intergovernmental and scientific meetings, as well as workshops. Three policy briefs and numerous other forms of communication (non-scientific articles, podcasts, webinars, outreach events, etc.) have also reached hundreds of thousands of stakeholders including the public.
The research undertaken during this IF, as well as its communication, has resulted (and will continue to result) in an improved collective understanding of this abyssal ecosystem, as well as the associated risks of deep-seabed mining, so that future management decisions may be more informed and actions more effective.
Sharing findings at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland
Delivering a science-based intervention at the International Seabed Authority, Kingston, Jamaica