When the riches of the land run out

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Can environmental safeguards prevent the worst effects of deep-sea mining?

Until fairly recently, the deep seabed has remained relatively untouched, its inaccessibility protecting it from human interference. But ingenuity driven by opportunity to turn a profit has begun to solve the problem of how to explore and exploit the ocean’s most remote resources.

What’s down there? In addition to some of our planet’s most extreme and uniquely adapted wildlife, there are massive deposits of copper, zinc, gold, silver, cobalt, manganese, nickel and rare earth elements. The applications for these metals and minerals are as varied as high-tech manufacturing and fertilizer production.

Deep sea anglerfish (Melanocoetus sp) female with lure projecting from head to attract prey. Atlantic Ocean. © / David Shale / WWF-CanonDeep sea anglerfish (Melanocoetus sp) female with lure projecting from head to attract prey. Atlantic Ocean. © / David Shale / WWF-Canon

As demand soars, the race to the bottom for resources to fuel the global economy intensifies. Areas of the seabed larger than Belgium are now being granted to consortia for minerals that may be extracted through methods equivalent to strip mining the seafloor. This is set to take place as much as six kilometres beneath the surface and, in many cases, in international waters – beyond the laws and regulations of any single nation. Out of sight, out of mind for most people, but not without consequences.

We don’t yet know the precise nature of the adverse impacts on deep-sea ecosystems, as we still have much to learn about this environment. Yet scientists warn that such mining could affect hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of seabed, destroying deep-water organisms on a scale previously unheard of – even compared to deep-sea bottom trawling, the most destructive fishing practice. At a minimum, we can anticipate the release of toxic chemicals and large-scale sediment plumes, with associated smothering effects in areas thus far untouched by human influence.

Deep sea cirrate octopod (Sauroteuthis syrtensis) from 800m depth, Atlantic Ocean. © / David Shale / WWF-CanonDeep sea cirrate octopod (Sauroteuthis syrtensis) from 800m depth, Atlantic Ocean. © / David Shale / WWF-Canon

How do we keep the seabed from becoming yet another tragedy of the commons? The International Seabed Authority (ISA) was established under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea to manage seabed mining in international waters. Its principles are sound, but as yet untested. That’s about to change.

Nineteen licenses for exploration have already been granted by the ISA to both companies and countries. These licenses apply to expanses of the Pacific, Atlantic and Southern Indian Ocean seabed amounting to an area nearly the size of Europe. After this year’s ISA meeting, currently underway in Jamaica, there are likely to be 26 exploration contracts, with more in the pipeline. These bestow the right to start actual exploitation as soon as the ISA has developed mineral-specific exploitation regulations. Together, they will create the largest mining operation the planet has ever seen, dwarfing anything on land.

I am representing WWF as an observer at this ISA meeting in an effort to ensure a measure of transparency, civil society engagement and the ultimate objective: science-based decision-making. Yet I already know that ISA’s most influential body, the legal and technical commission, will mostly meet behind closed doors. That means 25 people in a room – not a marine biologist among them – making decisions about how to use 50 per cent of the planet.

Orange roughy trawlerIndustrial fishing of orange roughy, a deep-water species. © AFMA

And before you think I am putting acorn worms and giant isopods before economic development, consider that marine fisheries currently provide 660 million jobs globally and are valued at US$109 billion a year. We are already stressing the source of these livelihoods, as well as decreasing the ocean’s ability to regulate the climate by absorbing carbon dioxide. Like any living system, the ocean has tipping points past which it cannot provide the services we depend on.

Unchecked large-scale mining of the sea floor might yield a short-term bonanza, but the possible long- term effects make it a dangerous gamble. When the ISA gives the green light to start mining, it must be accompanied by strong set of conditions to protect the marine environment and allow for informed, transparent, objective decision-making for what is the common heritage of all humanity.

By Simon Walmsley, WWF International Marine Manager, Extractives

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