Of all the questions I am asked as a deep-sea biologist, the hardest to answer is “why conserve deep-sea hydrothermal vents?” Sure there are the classic canards of economics (vents produce valuable minerals) and biotechnology (vents house unique organisms that may produce useful pharmaceutical or technological products) but these are hollow, belie a conservation ethic driven by human selfishness, and pander to an exploitative system. Beyond those lie a series of high minded, though vague, ethics about preserving biodiversity, protecting unique habitats, and understanding an ecosystem more alien than any science fiction story before destroying it.
Our global society is coming around to the idea that biodiversity is valuable in its own right, that species are precious, and that we have a duty to minimize the damage we inflict upon the world. We still have a long way to go, but the wind is in the sails and the ship is coming about. Despite this growing environmental ethic, the tragic reality is that before 1977 we didn’t even know hydrothermal vents existed and if every vent community was wiped from the face of the seafloor, few outside of a handful of fortunate scientists and deep-sea enthusiasts would notice.
So why conserve deep-sea hydrothermal vents?