The leakage of cold, methane-rich fluids from subsurface reservoirs to the sea floor at specific sites on continental slopes, termed cold seeps, sustains some of the richest ecosystems on the sea bed. These seep-fuelled communities utilize around two orders of magnitude more oxygen per unit area than non-seep seafloor communities. Much of the oxygen is consumed by microbes and animal–microbe symbioses that use methane as an energy source. The proportion of methane consumed varies with fluid flow rate, ranging from 80% in seeps with slow fluid flow to less than 20% in seeps where fluid flow is high. Assuming the presence of a few tens of thousands of active cold seep systems on continental slopes worldwide, we estimate that the total efflux of methane to the overlying ocean could reach 0.02 Gt of carbon annually. As much more methane is lost from continental slopes, be it through emission to the hydrosphere or consumption by microbes, than can be produced, we suggest that a substantial fraction of the methane that fuels seep ecosystems is sourced from deep carbon buried kilometres under the sea floor.