Deep seabed mining is a new — and lightly regulated — ecological experiment

Living on Earth
Robotic arm taking samples

“We know less about the deep sea than we know about the surface of the moon,” says environtmentalist Richard Page. “So this is a big experiment.”

The “experiment” Page refers to is a project launched by a Canadian company called Nautilus Minerals to extract copper, gold and other valuable metals from the seabed off the coast of Papua New Guinea — nearly a mile from the ocean’s surface.

Page, an oceans campaigner for Greenpeace, says mining companies see a treasure trove at the bottom of the ocean.

“There are three different kinds of mineral deposits in the deep ocean that industry is getting interested in,” Page explains. “There are manganese nodules, which are found on the abyssal plain of the deep ocean; there are cobalt crusts — mineral-rich crusts — on a lot of the underwater mountains spread throughout the ocean; and deep sea vents, where there are deposits of metals, as well.”

Some of the largest mineral deposits are in the Pacific Ocean, but there are others in the Atlantic and the Indian oceans as well. Page says Nautilus Minerals chose Papua New Guinea as its first location for exploration for several reasons.

“It’s a Pacific island-nation that has a large exclusive economic zone surrounded by water,” Page says, “and it has an interesting deep sea geology — which has these large deposits of metals around vents. Relatively speaking, these would be technologically feasible to exploit.”

The government of Papua New Guinea sees this new venture as an economic opportunity for the country. But because the country is highly dependent on the ocean, seabed mining isn’t supported by all of the country's citizens. There are many community groups that strongly oppose the agreement.

And they're not alone. Global environmentalist organizations also worry that seabed mining could be devastating to deep ocean ecosystems.

“We all know that mining on land has all sorts of environmental impacts,” Page says. “It’s very difficult to contain mine tailings, even on land. In the ocean, which, of course, is a fluid environment with all these currents, we can expect widespread pollution.”

Page says we can expect other ill effects, too — everything from smothering of deep sea creatures with sediment to light pollution, which in the deep sea will have an impact on creatures that have evolved to live in dark environments.

Page says Greenpeace is calling for protection measures to be put in place now, before the “experiment” begins.

“Less than three percent of the world’s oceans are either marine protected areas or ocean sanctuaries,” he notes. “And if we’re looking at waters beyond national boundaries, then it’s less than one percent.”

Under the Convention on Biological Diversity and World Summit on Sustainable Development, governments and scientists agreed to the need for a global network of ocean sanctuaries, but they haven’t yet taken any action, says Page. “What we’re saying is we need to get those kind of measures in place before we start adding to the stresses being put on ocean ecosystems.”

“What we really need,” he continues, “is a new UN agreement that ties all these different elements together, so we start managing the oceans in a holistic way. ... We need an overarching framework, if you like, to manage our activities under the sea, so we don’t, for example, consider fisheries separate of seabed mining.”

Right now, an organization called the International Seabed Authority is in charge of granting licenses to explore for minerals at the bottom of the ocean. Page worries it is not up to the challenge.

“The International Seabed Authority was formed ... before the industry was really technologically possible, and at a time when we knew far less about the oceans than we do now,” he explains. “So I would say it isn’t really fit for the purpose. There are rules it has set which will apply to seabed mining operations in international waters, but those rules don’t take into account what is happening in the water column and other activities.”

The greatest fear for Page, and for others already concerned about the state of the planet’s oceans, is that the deal between Nautilus Minerals and Papua New Guinea is the start of a trend. Technological advances, largely developed from deep sea oil drilling, and the huge demand for the precious metals used in all of our electronic devices have created the right conditions for companies and countries looking to exploit the riches of the ocean floor.

“If this venture is successful,” he says, “then we can expect to see an explosion of deep sea mining. We’ve [already] got something like 19 licenses, I believe, in international waters, and there are other countries and companies looking to do it within the economic zones of specific islands. So the Papua New Guinea venture is really the tip of the iceberg, I think.”

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