Using Habitat Classification to Assess Representativity of a Protected Area Network in a Large, Data-Poor Area Targeted for Deep-Sea Mining
Extractive activities in the ocean are expanding into the vast, poorly studied deep sea, with the consequence that environmental management decisions must be made for data-poor seafloor regions. Habitat classification can support marine spatial planning and inform decision-making processes in such areas. We present a regional, top–down, broad-scale, seafloor-habitat classification for the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ), an area targeted for future polymetallic nodule mining in abyssal waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Our classification uses non-hierarchical, k-medoids clustering to combine environmental correlates of faunal distributions in the region. The classification uses topographic variables, particulate organic carbon flux to the seafloor, and is the first to use nodule abundance as a habitat variable. Twenty-four habitat classes are identified, with large expanses of abyssal plain and smaller classes with varying topography, food supply, and substrata. We then assess habitat representativity of the current network of protected areas (called Areas of Particular Environmental Interest) in the CCZ. Several habitat classes with high nodule abundance are common in mining exploration claims, but currently receive little to no protection in APEIs. There are several large unmanaged areas containing high nodule abundance on the periphery of the CCZ, as well as smaller unmanaged areas within the central CCZ, that could be considered for protection from mining to improve habitat representativity and safeguard regional biodiversity.