James Croker | Dive Mistress
New Zealanders are blessed with a strong connection to the ocean. We are surrounded by it and most of us are influenced or directly involved with it on a daily basis. It is a mighty taonga that enriches body and mind. Fishing, Sailing, Surfing, Swimming, Diving – all are activities that define many of us and why we choose to make Aotearoa, this special place on earth, home.
But imagine if you can, an ocean where these activities are either no longer possible or no longer fulfilling. The fish have been depleted and are unsafe to eat, plastic litter dominates the surface, surf breaks are no longer breaking, toxins make it unsafe to swim and diving in murky waters where life has been extinguished is just plain depressing. OK, leave that space now people – back to Nemo and baby sea turtles !
Our oceans are under immense pressure already from many causes including overfishing, pollution and acidification.The ocean is the source of all life on earth and provides us with the oxygen we breath while also soaking up our carbon dioxide. It is imperative for our future that we start to remediate the effects we are having on our aquatic environments that we rely on, and soon. We certainly don´t need to be adding any new problems.
Children of Piha and Karekare talk about the threat of seabed mining off their beach.
However, as I write this, companies are lining up across the world in the expectation of a new “gold rush” which will destroy any efforts we make to get back on track. They want to mine our seabed.
Over the last few decades, this new industry has been much talked about. As land resources start to become harder to recover, attention has now turned to the rich minerals and rare earth metals found in the seabed. Technology has been developed that will allow companies to extract material from seabeds up to thousands of meters deep allbeit in a crude manor by dredging sand or lifting material – the oceanic equivalent of open cast mining.
This is an experimental process, as seabed mining has no precedent. Scientists are only just beginning to piece together how the deep ocean functions. We do not know what the environmental impacts will be long term and this is a hotly contested topic between environmentalists and mining companies.
The Pacific is where the global industry focus lies. This is due to its rich minerals and that the first deep sea mining operation is currently being forced on the people of Papua New Guinea. Read more at Act Now PNG
The threat of experimental seabed mining – coming to a community near you
New Zealand has placed itself at the forefront, having offered exploration permits in large blocks to companies around our coastlines. Most notably in shallow waters off the West coast of the North Island but also the deep waters of the Chatham rise.
These companies want our West coast black sand for its iron ore and titanium content and also phosphate for fertiliser production off the Chatham rise.
Trans Tasman Resources, the first applicant, wants to remove the entire top 11M of seabed over an area of 65 sqKM off the Patea coastline in Taranaki. This would take place 22 to 36 KM off the coastline in waters of between 20 to 50M depth.
Their target is to recover 3 to 5 million tonnes of iron ore per year which would mean mining 50 million tonnes of sand every year. A permit is expected to last 25 to 35 years. I struggle to form a mental picture of the scale of this !
The process now involves using a large mechanical crawler which cuts 11M into the seafloor creating channels expected to be 10M wide at a time. The sand is then sucked up to a processing ship on the surface where the iron ore is magnetically removed and the de-ored sand (90 percent plus) mixed with seawater is pumped back down to a set level above the seabed in an effort to refill the channels. A previous suggestion was using suction pipes directly off the ship.
Needless to say, the environmental effects of this will be devastating. The cumulative effects remain unknown. What is certain is that nothing is left alive in the seabed and these ecosystems may take decades or generations to recover, if ever. Fisheries could be substantially affected in the entire region through loss of life in the seafloor and curtailment of phytoplankton which are the base levels of the food chain. The sediment plume produced from the disturbance will stretch over a large area affecting not just the site being mined. Benthic organisms in the surrounding area such as sponges could be smothered and killed. Oxygen levels, temperature and salinity will be affected. Toxins such as heavy metals that have settled and been trapped within the seafloor will be released back into the water column.
Marine mammals such as Maui´s dolphin could be affected lessening their chance of recovery. Erosion could occur both up and downstream from any mining, with deterioration of surf break and beach quality expected.
The case for economic gain from this operation is weak. The per tonne value of the ore is low, meaning volumes extracted need to be large. The government is likely to receive between 1 and 5% of the ores value as royalty. Job opportunities will be minimal as the current proposals are for sea based processing, with little land-based infrastructure. The raw iron ore will be exported directly having had no value added to it in New Zealand. Profits will go offshore as Trans Tasman Resources are 95% foreign owned.
Losses to the amenity value, quality of our beaches, surf breaks or fishing would pose a direct threat to the economy of the West coast.
Unfortunately we seem to live in a time when creating small economic gains are given more importance than preventing widespread environmental destruction and governments seem to serve the interests of large companies instead of people.
Trans Tasman Resources (whose only NZ director is Jenny Shipley) have submitted a marine consent application to the Environmental Protection Agency. If it is accepted, there will be a notification issued by the EPA after which the public can have a say via submission for the following 20 working days only.
I urge all who are passionate about the ocean to engage in this issue as once it begins we could see multiple companies mining multiple sites up and down the coasts. There is no coastal management plan that includes these operations. Legislation is weak and who knows if there would be any kind of monitoring.
KASM (Kiwis Against Seabed Mining) is a community based, not for profit action group that strongly opposes any non-essential seabed mining. They have been actively campaigning for 8 years to raise awareness of this issue up and down the west coast holding public meetings and linking communities together to protect the coastline and seabed.
Please check out the KASM website where you can learn more and sign up to be updated when the submission process starts. Like the Kiwis Against Seabed Mining Facebook page and see what has been happening up and down the coast.Write to your MP, papers and spread awareness of the issue.
As divers we are fortunate to experience life in two worlds – the terrestrial and the aquatic. We can see at first hand how these worlds function and how the environments differ. We understand that principles that can be applied on land have a very different outcome underwater. Divers then are very well placed to inform those who have never ventured beneath the surface (including many policy makers/developers) what the effects of their actions will be.
As I mentioned earlier, our oceans are under pressure like never before and it´s time for us to make some smart decisions. Mining the seabed using destructive methods is not one of them. Australia and Namibia have had the sense to issue a moratorium on seabed mining. New Zealand should follow their example.
Lets make sure that future generations can continue to fish, sail, swim, surf, dive and enjoy the ocean as we do every day.
KASM (Kiwis Against Seabed Mining) website - http://kasm.org.nz - Make sure to register so you won’t miss out on making your voice count on the next submission process and other calls to action.
Kiwis Against Seabed Mining Facebook page
Act Now! for a better Papua New Guinea - http://actnowpng.org