Scientists discover new deep sea life, companies apply to exploit it

A deep-sea marine biodiversity survey of seamounts on the Chatham Rise has produced a bounty of new species.

The finds were made by National Institute of Water Atmospheric Research (Niwa) research vessel Tangaroa, on 18-day voyage in July along the Chatham Rise.

The rise stretches for 1000km from near the South Island eastward.

The finds include a coral genus Narella and nicknamed "Rasta" because of its long white dreadlock-like branches; a tiny squat lobster measuring 1cm across; and some specimens of sea urchin which are commonly known as Tam O'Shanters due to their similarity to the Scottish hat.

"There are three new corals that we are confident are new species from the area," said scientist Di Tracey.

One of the places surveyed was the Shipley Seamount -- named after a former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley -- which is as big as Mt Taranaki but over a kilometre under the ocean surface.

Voyage leader Malcolm Clark said other sites visited included the Graveyard Seamounts with names in keeping with a ghoulish theme: Morgue, Graveyard, Zombie, and Gothic.

Three surveys of the Graveyard region since 2001 have revealed high levels of biodiversity, and many undescribed species.

They include benthic macroinvertebrates -- animals without backbones that are larger than millimetre long -- such as corals, sponges, seastars, snails, lobsters, clams, and marine worms.

The first survey alone showed 15 percent of the species collected were unknown in the New Zealand region, plus 14 species new to science. Six new species of lace coral were discovered in the second survey in 2006.

Seamounts can be ecologically valuable as hotspots of biodiversity and economically valuable and they are often the target of commercial fishing.

But the Chatham Rise -- where the fishing industry wiped out the commercial viability of the orange roughy through overfishing -- is also being targeted by miners eyeing its multi-billion dollar phosphate resources.

Widespread Energy and its parent company Widespread Portfolios applied in August 2007 for a prospecting licence over a 3048 square kilometre area of the rise.

It hoped that 100 million tonnes of phosphorite (rock phosphate) valued at more than $50 billion can be scraped off the seabed.

And an Auckland company Chatham Phosphate Ltd has applied for another 71,750sq km around the Widespread prospect.

Source: Ortago Daily Times

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