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Over 180 Deep Sea Species Studied by Queen's University Belfast Scientists Added to "Red List" of Threatened Species

10th December 2021
Molluscs - scientists assessed 184 “vent-endemic” mollusc species, and found 114 or 62 per cent were threatened by deep sea mining Credit: Dr Chong Chen.

New research from Queen’s University Belfast has led to 184 deep-sea species being added to the global “Red List” of threatened species.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is the world’s foremost conservation authority, and its “red list” categorises universally recognised extinction risk categories.

More than 140,000 species have been “red listed”, but less than 15% are from marine environments and barely any have been from the deep sea, the QUB scientists point out.

The scientists examined mollusc species in hydrothermal vents, a unique deep sea ecosystem which is the equivalent in density of life as tropical rainforests or coral reefs.

A deep-sea Hydrothermal Vent taken by a Remotely Operate Vehicle (ROV). Photo credit to Marum Universitat BremenA deep-sea Hydrothermal vent taken by a Remotely Operate Vehicle (ROV). Photo: Marum Universitat Bremen

There are about 600 hydrothermal vents known, most being about a third of a football field in size.

The scientists assessed 184 “vent-endemic” mollusc species and found 114 or 62 per cent were threatened by deep-sea mining.

They found a further 45 species (24.4%) are listed as “near threatened”, while only 13.6% of species are listed as of “least concern”, under the protection of marine protected areas (MPAs).

“The deep sea is the largest environment on earth with thousands of unique species living in extreme habitats,” the scientists said.

“ The remoteness of these seafloor habitats means they are often understudied, making it difficult to understand and communicate their conservation requirements,” they said.

“There is growing industrial interest in the deep sea, including deep-sea mining for commercially important metals, meaning it is now vital to protect these unique, insular ecosystems and their specialist endemic species,” they said.

The research was supported by the Marine Institute and involved an international team from the USA, Canada, Japan and Britain.

QUB PhD student, Elin Thomas, who is lead researcher, said the teams focus was 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.... we focused our study on molluscs,” Thomas said.

“Almost two-thirds of the molluscs are listed as threatened, which illustrates the urgent need to protect these species from extinction,” she said.

“Indian Ocean vent molluscs are under the greatest extinction risk, with 100% of species listed in threatened categories and 60% as critically endangered,” Thomas pointed out,

She noted that this “coincides with the distribution of mining contracts granted by the International Seabed Authority”

“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,” Thomas said.

“It’s vital that we continue to deepen our understanding of the marine environment before it’s too late for too many species,” she said.

The research has been published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

Published in Marine Science
Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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Marine Science Perhaps it is the work of the Irish research vessel RV Celtic Explorer out in the Atlantic Ocean that best highlights the essential nature of marine research, development and sustainable management, through which Ireland is developing a strong and well-deserved reputation as an emerging centre of excellence. From Wavebob Ocean energy technology to aquaculture to weather buoys and oil exploration these pages document the work of Irish marine science and how Irish scientists have secured prominent roles in many European and international marine science bodies.


At A Glance – Ocean Facts

  • 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by the ocean
  • The ocean is responsible for the water cycle, which affects our weather
  • The ocean absorbs 30% of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by human activity
  • The real map of Ireland has a seabed territory ten times the size of its land area
  • The ocean is the support system of our planet.
  • Over half of the oxygen we breathe was produced in the ocean
  • The global market for seaweed is valued at approximately €5.4 billion
  • · Coral reefs are among the oldest ecosystems in the world — at 230 million years
  • 1.9 million people live within 5km of the coast in Ireland
  • Ocean waters hold nearly 20 million tons of gold. If we could mine all of the gold from the ocean, we would have enough to give every person on earth 9lbs of the precious metal!
  • Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world – Ireland is ranked 7th largest aquaculture producer in the EU
  • The Atlantic Ocean is the second largest ocean in the world, covering 20% of the earth’s surface. Out of all the oceans, the Atlantic Ocean is the saltiest
  • The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean in the world. It’s bigger than all the continents put together
  • Ireland is surrounded by some of the most productive fishing grounds in Europe, with Irish commercial fish landings worth around €200 million annually
  • 97% of the earth’s water is in the ocean
  • The ocean provides the greatest amount of the world’s protein consumed by humans
  • Plastic affects 700 species in the oceans from plankton to whales.
  • Only 10% of the oceans have been explored.
  • 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year, equal to dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.
  • 12 humans have walked on the moon but only 3 humans have been to the deepest part of the ocean.

(Ref: Marine Institute)

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