Few moments have so profoundly altered our understanding of what it means to be a living thing on Planet Earth as the discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vents and the organisms that thrive around them. The first vents visited were dominated by Riftia pachyptila, the giant tube worm, whose magnificent ruby plumage parted to reveal an entire community adapted to harness the chemical energy that poured from the vents. It is almost poetic that the first vents were found on the Galapagos Rift; the same tectonic feature contributed to another great, formative moment in biology — the Voyage of the Beagle. Hydrothermal vents provided the first evidence that the sun was not the only source of energy that living organisms could harness. They opened our eyes to the potential of chemosynthesis and hinted at an ocean of unfathomable wonders waiting to be discovered.
As a marine biologists just beginning my deep-sea education, conservation as a priority was an alien concept. The deep sea was the last true wilderness, distant and alien, impossibly difficult to access. We knew that exploitation was coming, companies had been exploring the potential of deep-sea mining for decades, but they always seemed to be generation away. Conservation was a question for my scientific descendants. For my peers and me, we still had a few good decades left in the golden age of exploration that began in the 1970’s with the first discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vents. That age is about to end.
The reality of deep-sea exploitation is imminent. The first hydrothermal vent mining lease has been issued in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea. The International Seabed Authority, which regulates seafloor extraction in international waters, has approved the first two mining exploration permits for seafloor massive sulfides in international waters. Manganese nodule extraction, once quashed by a global decline in metal prices, has recently reappeared. Crustal metal deposits are fast becoming a viable resource. The isolation of rare earth elements from the seafloor, a newcomer in deep-sea exploitation, could open up new, massive deposit for critical electronic components. All of these are likely to occur within the next few decades.