The Ecological Impacts of Mining at Seafloor Massive Sulfide Deposits on Megafaunal Assemblage Structure and Population Connectivity
Deep-sea mining is rapidly becoming a reality, yet there are considerable gaps in our knowledge of the seabed assemblages that could be affected by mining activities. Seafloor Massive Sulfide (SMS) mining is expected to remove nearly all organisms in the immediate area and alter the remaining habitat, so that mitigation strategies for SMS mining will most likely need to include the establishment of protected areas to preserve the biodiversity that is lost at mine sites. Prospecting licences have been issued previously for SMS deposits within the New Zealand Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), however little is known about the seabed assemblages potentially at risk from SMS mining, particularly with respect to their structure (at multiple spatial scales) and the connectivity of assemblages at different sites. Designing studies to provide this information can be aided by turning to terrestrial, freshwater and shallow marine systems, where the fields of ecological theory, environmental management and conservation theory are better developed (Chapter 1). Prior to detailed investigations into the assemblage structure and population connectivity of New Zealand SMS deposits, it is essential to understand the global context of SMS mining. This was undertaken through an extensive literature review of SMS deposits, including their geology, seafloor communities, impacts from mining, international and national regulation, and environmental management (Chapter 2). In order to investigate the large-scale spatial distribution and structure of seafloor assemblages at SMS deposits, three New Zealand seamounts previously licenced for the prospecting phase of SMS mining were surveyed. Video footage from a towed camera was analysed to identify and characterise assemblages, and their association with environmental variation was investigated. Analysis of 249 video samples (each 250 m in length) distributed amongst the three seamounts indicated that SMS deposits support unique assemblages and that there were strong links between assemblage structure and environmental variation at a range of spatial scales. There was also a complex distribution of assemblages amongst the seamounts, suggesting a network of protected areas would be the most effective method for spatial management. Such networks should include sites that support the unique assemblages found in association with SMS deposits (Chapter 3). The fine-scale distribution and structure of assemblages at SMS deposits was investigated by using data from a single SMS deposit, Proteus 1, and comparing it to a Reference Site selected to have similar size and seabed characteristics to the deposit. Video footage from a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) was used to identify and characterise assemblages, and their association with environmental conditions. Analysis of 153 video samples (each 15 m in length) confirmed the existence of assemblages unique to SMS deposits, and indicated that environmental characteristics specific to the deposit are responsible for the observed patterns of faunal distribution. Although five assemblages were shared between Proteus 1 and the Reference Site, six assemblages were unique to Proteus 1. This suggested that the proposed Reference Site would be inadequate on its own in terms of protecting the biological diversity present at the mine site but could contribute to a network of protected areas (Chapter 4). The issue of connectivity was addressed by examining the genetic connectivity of populations of the endemic hydrothermal vent mussel, Gigantidas gladius. Universal markers, archived material and off-the-shelf DNA extraction kits were used to investigate a cost effective approach. The assessment utilised variation in 586 base pairs of the mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase I subunit (COI) from 150 individuals in seven populations of G. gladius. Small sample sizes limited the recommendations that could be made for environmental management; however interpretation of the available sequences indicated panmixia with limited genetic structure and high connectivity amongst populations. Central Kermadec Volcanic Arc populations had particularly high haplotypic diversity and migrant exchange, suggesting they could be important for maintaining regional genetic connectivity and would merit inclusion in seabed protection measures (Chapter 5). Establishing protected areas for biodiversity needs to utilise all of the available information. The integrated findings of this thesis highlight the need for a network of protected seabed areas along the Kermadec Volcanic Arc to help mitigate the impacts of any future SMS mining activities. These networks should be highly connected (as determined by genetic connectivity) and include both active and inactive SMS areas to conserve 1) the endemic vent fauna in active areas and 2) the unique assemblages found in both environments (Chapter 6).