Protect the Deep Sea: Halt the Development of Deep Sea Mining

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The world’s oceans face a new threat. A new commercial exploit looms on the horizon, poised to plunder the last untouched ecosystem on the planet.

This threat is deep sea mining. 

Deep sea mining is the extraction of minerals from the deep sea - the area of the ocean below 200m depth (IUCN). The scraping of the sea floor for mining and the pollution this creates can wipe out entire species (as species are often endemic and highly localised, i.e. found nowhere else on the planet and only on relatively small tracts of seabed) - many of these species are yet to be discovered.

The deep sea is now thought to be home to more species than anywhere else on the planet. Earth’s final, and largely unknown, wilderness holds an ecosystem home to an array of life beyond our imagination. Yet the opportunity to make money is fast turning the purpose of ventures into the abyss from biological discovery, to economic exploitation.

As excessive global consumption devours through the last of our exploitable mineral reserves on land, commercial interests are realising the potential the deep sea holds as new technologies are set to make material extraction easier in the coming years.

This would have untold destructive effects on the ecosystems and creatures that dwell within. Researchers from the University of Exeter and Greenpeace say mining could have “long-lasting and unforeseen consequences” not only at the mining site, but across larger areas of the seabed.

Potential environmental impacts include physical destruction of seabed habitats; creation of large underwater plumes of sediment (these plumes are now thought to take 10x longer to re-settle than previously thought, meaning they travel farther across the sea before re-settling, posing lethal threats to seabed dwellers across a far larger range than the initial mining site); and chemical, light, and noise pollution.

A new international study has demonstrated that deep-sea nodule mining will cause long-lasting damage to deep-sea life. This study, led by scientists at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), was the first to review all the available information on the impacts of small-scale sea-floor disturbances simulating mining activity. It found clear impacts on marine ecosystems from deep-sea nodule mining activities, which lasted at least for decades.

“Our knowledge of these ecosystems is still limited, but we know they’re very sensitive,” says Dr David Santillo, a marine biologist and senior Greenpeace scientist based at the University of Exeter. “Recovery from man-made disturbance could take decades, centuries or even millennia, if these ecosystems recover at all.”

Kristina Gjerde, a high seas policy specialist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is deeply concerned over the lack of environmental protections in a draft code formulated by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) which will create the framework for exploitation. “We’re just blindly going into the dark, adjusting any impacts on the way,” says Gjerde. “We have no assurances, no evidence that theyof can avoid serious harm.”

In a letter published in Nature Geoscience today, marine scientists from roughly a dozen universities—including two who have received research support from deep ocean mining company Nautilus Minerals—argue that if the deep ocean is opened up to mining, a loss of biodiversity is “inevitable” and “likely to last forever on human scales, given the very slow natural rates of recovery in affected ecosystems.”

The term ‘mining’ here is perhaps inappropriate, as the ‘mining’ would involve extracting minerals over very wide areas of the sea floor rather than digging down to any great depth, potentially leaving a vast “footprint” on the deep-sea habitats in which these mineral deposits occur.

The first commercial enterprise in deeper waters, expected to target mineral-rich sulphides at depths of 1.5-2km off Papua New Guinea, was scheduled to begin early in 2019, but has been delayed due to funding difficulties. This is to be carried out by Canadian company Nautilus Minerals, and will exploit the deep sea mineral area called ‘Solwara 1’, which contains extractable quantities of gold, zinc, silver, and copper.

The prospect of deep sea mining spells doom not only for the seabed ecosystems of which we know so little about, but also indigenous cultures in Papua New Guinea (PNG). A clan chief of the Duke of York islands, off PNG in the Bismarck Sea said in response to the Solwara 1 mining plans “When they start mining the seabed, they’ll start mining a part of me”. The deep sea mining prospects damage an aspect of who the Duke of York islanders are, including the spirits that inhabit their culture and beliefs. Central to their beliefs are spirits - the Masalai - some of which are understood as guardians of the seabed and it’s resources. Thus, the oncoming crisis of the seabed is not just an environmental one, but a cultural and spiritual one for the local communities affected, too.

Speaking about the Solwara 1 plans, Sir David Attenborough said it was “tragic that humanity should just plough on with no regard for the consequences”.

Recently, Professor Mat Upton discovered a deep sea bacteria that could help in fighting superbugs, saving thousands of lives per year. But Upton is one of many scientists urging a halt to deep sea mining, stating “We’re looking at the bioactive potential of marine resources, to see if there are any more medicines or drugs down there before we destroy it for ever,”

So far, 29 licenses for exploration activities have been granted by the International Seabed Authority, a UN body made up of 168 countries, to promote and regulate deep sea mining. No commercial exploitation licenses have been granted yet, but one firm, Global Sea Mineral Resources, has said it needs regulations in place by next year to start mining in 2026.

Commercial mining in national waters of Papua New Guinea is predicted to begin by 2020. Mining in international waters is expected to commence in 2025, but it is not too late to stop this from happening. There are alternative ways to meet our society’s needs without destroying the last mostly untouched ecosystem on the planet, particularly not at a time when the oceans are already under such immense threat from overfishing, climate change, and pollution.

The repair, recycling and reuse of products should be encouraged to help reduce the demand for raw materials from the deep sea. Enhancing product design to make use of less or alternative materials can also reduce the demand.

Dr. Santillo, of the University of Exeter and Greenpeace, said demand for seabed mining would also diminish if humanity could cut overproduction and overconsumption of consumer goods. “Rather than using human ingenuity to invent more and more consumer products that we don’t actually need, we could deploy it instead to build choose that last longer, are easier to repair and make better use of the limited natural resources we have,” he said.

Thus we, the undersigned, demand the UN develop and implement a worldwide binding multilateral treaty halting all deep sea mining projects and relinquishing all licenses for exploration and cancelling all plans for future exploitative contracts. Deep sea mining is not essential, and there will be no excuse for ploughing ahead with the destruction of yet another sensitive, vulnerable, and totally unique ecosystem in the name of profit and resource extraction. We implore you to reconsider and prevent this new ‘gold rush’ before it begins. 

Such global treaties are not unheard of, the world came together in the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, to commit to reversing the damage that had been done to the ozone layer, and saw the prevention of the use of over 250,000 ozone-depleting chemicals.
The world succeeded then and the world can succeed again - in the name of protecting the deep sea. All that is required is the will.
This is our only chance to stop this industrial process before it starts.