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What’s happening with your polymetallic nodules?

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Polymetallic nodules. Polymetallic sulphides. Cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.

These words are unlikely to make into small talk at the pub or around the dinner table. So why do they matter? They matter because these are valuable resources. They matter because they are your resources, even though you’ll probably never see them. And they matter because companies and countries are willing to go to the deep ocean floor in search of them.

Many of these formations sit in areas beyond national jurisdiction and are hence the common heritage of all. That means they belong to everyone ‚Äď or to no one. Last week, one little-known body called the International Seabed Authority (ISA) granted seven companies and governments from around the world concessions to explore for copper, zinc, gold, silver, cobalt, manganese, nickel, rare earth elements and whatever else of use they might find in these crusts and nodules. Now a total 26 licences have been issued, covering 1.2 million square kilometres of ocean floor.

With money to be made, the exploration will accelerate. We should all be concerned that there are no clear rules for sharing the potential profits of deep-sea mining in these areas beyond national jurisdiction.

But for me, the bigger worry is that we lack so much basic information about the deep ocean that we can‚Äôt accurately predict the consequences of mining in these frontier areas. The ISA should compel the ‚Äúpioneer‚ÄĚ license holders who have been exploring for years now to share their data publicly. Those who have the privilege of exploring these shared resources have a responsibility to share information that may help prevent irreversible damage to deep ocean life.

Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) underwater off the Auckland Islands, New Zealand (sub Antarctic islands). © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWFSouthern right whales (Eubalaena australis) underwater off the Auckland Islands, New Zealand (sub Antarctic islands).
© Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF

Parts of the ocean are already protected ‚Äď not enough, but some. ISA‚Äôs operations should respect the letter and intent of international conventions and agreements to protect biologically sensitive and productive areas. Only through the right mix of use and protection can the ocean continue to be an economic engine, source of food and livelihoods, and natural wonder.

By Simon Walmsley, WWF International Marine Manager, Extractives

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