Seabed mining to offer economic hope for Cook Islands

Researchers waved to family on shore, as the Grinna II left the Avatiu Harbour yesterday.

Papua New Guinea recently lost K375 million gambling on experimental seabed mining, but Cook Islands isn’t deterred

Anneka Brown | Cook Island News | September 12, 2019 

Government has rejected international calls for a 10-year moratorium on undersea mining.

Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown describes a proposed moratorium as “confusing”, saying Cook Islands are among only a small number of Pacific islands that have the chance to mine their seabeds.

There has been gathering momentum in support of a moratorium: it was proposed by Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama at last month’s Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, and has now been backed by Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.

But Brown was sceptical, saying Fiji wasn’t much involved in seabed minerals.

He spoke to Cook Islands News after farewelling research vessel MC Grinna II yesterday morning.

The ship left the Avatiu harbour carrying officials from Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority, in the first Cooks-crewed expedition since the 1980s to collect samples from the seabed of the exclusive economic zone.

Brown indicated the Cooks were preparing to go it alone: The undersea minerals exploration could provide the resource the country needed to fight climate change, when other countries’ aid funding dries up.

The mining of seabed minerals would help diversify the economy, after the Cooks become a developed country and lose development aid assistance, as well as facing greater difficulty accessing climate funding.

Brown said donor countries were withdrawing their contributions to the Green Climate Fund.

“We have to take responsibility for our own resilience funding to protect our country against the impacts of climate change and this resource provides us with the means to do that,” he said.

“We see our research and exploration on seabed minerals as something that is positive for our country and contributing to reducing global emissions.”

It is important to look at how the Cooks would fill funding gaps after becoming a developed country, he said, and to look particularly at the wealth that exists in the ocean.

Although the way government revenues will be calculated was unclear, he said, it was estimated that with a three per cent royalty, the industry could generate an annual revenue of US$45m (NZ$70m) – about three times the revenue from fisheries or nearly a third of tourism’s earnings.

The Cook Islands was the first Pacific nation to develop a law for managing seabed mining and also had some of the most progressive marine legislation in the region, known as the Marae Moana Act 2017, which makes conservation the focus of all ocean-based activity.

Brown said: “It’s inevitable that we will turn to our ocean for our wellbeing.”

Fiji had little involvement in seabed minerals activity, Brown said, so for them to propose a regional moratorium on something that was not really a regional asset was “confusing” and wasn’t accepted at them Pacific Islands Leader’s Forum.

“It’s different from fisheries that is a regional asset, but mineral stocks are static and there are not many Pacific island countries that have mineral resources like the Cook Islands.”

In fact, the Cook Islands were unique in being the only country in the Pacific where polymetallic nodules existed in our waters.

In the Cook Islands the nodules are mainly in the South Penrhyn Basin 5,000 meters deep which contain valuable minerals such as Manganese, Cobalt, Nickel, Copper and even rare amounts of Titanium.

Some environmentalists are concerned that mining the seafloor could destroy fragile marine habitats and further accelerate the destruction of ocean ecosystems.

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Filed under Cook Islands, Environmental impact, Financial returns

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