The first deep-sea species to be deemed endangered because of the threat of mining has been the Scaly Foot Snail that lives near hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor east of Madagascar.
In what scholars have dubbed the “impossible living conditions” of underwater volcanic vents, is where the Volcanic Snail calls home. It is the only living organism able to integrate iron into its skeleton while suffering searing temperatures, high pressure, heavy acidity, and low oxygen. Scientists hope that studying it would uncover the mysteries of how early life evolved, as well as unlock its “huge potential” for medicine and other applications.
It is really rare as well. Marine biologist Julia Sigwart, who studies the Scaly Foot snail at Belfast’s Queen’s University, is one of the researchers who asked it to be listed on the IUCN Red List as endangered. In The conversation, she writes that the overall ecosystem of the creature, also including undiscovered colonies, maxes out at around 0.1 square miles. Although it might seem like it would be easy to preserve such a small slice of the ocean floor, it is not.
The mining of the seafloor, and in particular the mining of the depths where the Scaly Foot snails live, is still not technologically or economically viable. But in the near future, mining firms are gearing up for the day when they will be able to start mining metals and minerals from the deep. Hydrothermal deep-sea vents, such as those where the Scaly Foot Snail lives, are particularly desirable because gold, zinc, cobalt, and lithium because the hydrothermal processes in areas around the vents create such pure minerals.
The International Seabed Authority (ISA), an agency of the United Nations that manages the seafloor in international waters, is raising the alarm among researchers. Before the ISA finalizes its code of conduct, which is supposed to happen in 2021, mining will not be able to get underway. It is not clear how such guidelines would handle the existence of fragile habitats or endangered species. That’s one explanation why scientists have now lobbied for the listing of the sea pangolin to raise awareness that these ecosystems are endangered according to Nature.