Category Archives: Pacific region

Collapse of PNG deep-sea mining venture sparks calls for moratorium

Papua New Guinea out of pocket $157m from failed attempt at mining material from deep-sea vents as opponents point to environmental risk

Ben Doherty | The Guardian | 15 September 2019

The “total failure” of PNG’s controversial deep sea mining project Solwara 1 has spurred calls for a Pacific-wide moratorium on seabed mining for a decade.

The company behind Solwara 1, Nautilus, has gone into administration, with major creditors seeking a restructure to recoup hundreds of millions sunk into the controversial project.

The Solwara 1 project (Solwara is pidgin for ‘salt water’) planned to mine mineral-rich hydrothermal vents, formed by plumes of hot, acidic, mineral-rich water on the floor of the Bismarck Sea. But the project has met with fierce community resistance, legal challenges, and continued funding difficulties.

The PNG government sunk more than 375m Kina (AUD$157m) into the project, money it is attempting, but appears unlikely, to recoup. The project has been “a total failure” prime minister James Marape said.

Deepsea mining has proven contentious wherever it has been proposed and trialled across the world.

Proponents argue deep-sea mining could yield far superior ore to land mining – in silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt and zinc – with little, if any, waste product. The industry is potentially worth billions of dollars and could assist the transition to a renewable energy economy, supplying raw materials for key technologies such as batteries, computers and phones. Different mining methods exist, but most involve using converted terrestrial mining machinery to excavate materials from polymetallic nodules or hydrothermal vents on the sea floor, at depths of up to 6000 metres, then drawing a seawater slurry to ships on the surface. The slurry is then “de-watered” and transferred to another vessel for shipping. Extracted seawater is pumped back down and discharged close to the sea floor.

Environmental and legal groups have urged extreme caution, arguing there are potentially massive – and unknown – ramifications for the environment and for nearby communities, and that the global regulatory framework is not yet drafted, and currently deficient. Scientists argue deep sea biodiversity and ecosystems remain understudied and poorly understood, making it impossible to properly assess the potential impacts of mining – including disturbance of seafloor ecosystems; sediment displacement; and noise, vibration, and light pollution – and to establish adequate safeguards. Deepsea mining could worsen the global climate emergency, reducing the ocean’s ability to store carbon by disrupting seafloor sediments.

The Pacific has been seen as a region of immense deepsea mining potential, but some government leaders are now counselling against the rush to embrace seabed mining.

“I ask you all to… support a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining from 2020 to 2030 which would allow for a decade of proper scientific research of our economic zone and territorial waters,” Fiji president Frank Bainimarama told a climate ‘sautalaga’ – an open discussion – at the Pacific Islands Forum last month.

Charlot Salwai, Prime Minister of Vanuatu, supported Fiji’s call for a 10-year moratorium. Civil society organisations have consistently called for a moratorium on seabed mining “to prioritise the health of our communities and recognise values beyond economic gain”.

PNG had previously been one of deepsea mining’s firmest backers, but new prime minister James Marape has said he is wary of the technology, saying PNG had been “burned” by industry promises.

Until that deep sea mining technology is environmentally sound and takes care of our environment at the same time we mine it, that, at this point in time, I support the call made by the Fijian prime minister,” he told the Post Courier.

“If there is an opportunity for deep-sea mining, so long as environmentally it is friendly and the harvest of resources is done in a sustainable manner then we can give considerations to this, but right now it is a show.

“The technology is not proven anywhere and PNG, we burnt almost 300 million Kina in that Nautilus [Solwara 1] project on a concept that someone told us can work, but is… a total failure.”

Jonathan Mesalum from the Alliance of Solwara Warriors, a community group which opposed the Solwara project, said a 10-year moratorium would be welcomed, “but we need to go further to protect our seas, our livelihoods and traditions by imposing a ban”.

He said while Nautilus’s project had collapsed, other companies might take control of the project’s licences and attempt to resurrect it.

“No one knows about the environmental impact: not scientists, not Nautilus, not the government, nor you or I,” Mesalum told The Guardian. “Our biggest fear is there might be interest from other mining companies who wish to continue the project.”

Nautilus developed and successfully tested three undersea robots designed to mine hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, but funding for its production support vessel dried up midway through construction. Under a restructuring plan approved by a Canadian court, the company will be liquidated and left with no assets. But a PNG government-owned company Eda Kopa is seeking to recoup some of its money, in an ongoing dispute back before court this week.

A new report, Why the Rush?, from the Deep Sea Mining campaign described the Pacific as the “new wild west” for speculative mining ventures, and argued Pacific regional decision-making and political processes have been manipulated by mining companies seeking to take advantage of inchoate and incomplete regulatory frameworks in the region.

Sir Arnold Amet, former chief justice of PNG, was Governor of Madang province and an MP when Solwara 1 was approved. He said he regrets that the then government didn’t adequately scrutinise the proposal.

“Let’s recognise this failed investment in the upcoming budget and ensure we don’t enter into seabed mining joint ventures in the future or issue any more seabed exploration or mining licences. We now know how deep sea mining companies attempt to manipulate governments according to their own narrow profit motives without any conscience. We look to PM Marape to stand up for Papua New Guineans against the pressure exerted by these corporations.”

The Environmental Defenders Office NSW said deep seabed mining was similar to open cut mining at depths of between hundreds and thousands of metres below the sea’s surface.

“A 10-year moratorium on deepsea mining is an appropriate application of the precautionary principle in circumstances where the consequences and need for this type of mineral exploitation is not well understood,” the EDO’s BJ Kim told The Guardian.

“But it’s not only the risks that are not well understood, it’s also clear that appropriate legal frameworks for mining of this kind are not in place, either in the Pacific or elsewhere. This type of commercial experiment in the ocean should not progress without effective regulatory measures for risk mitigation, monitoring and enforcement of conditions.”

Communities bordering the Solwara 1 project have been concerned about a broad range of environmental impacts, Kim said, including minerals leaching into seawater affecting fisheries and livelihoods, the extinguishment of unique sea species, and the risk of accidents and spillages.

“Communities are still living with the impacts of land-based mining disasters such as Ok Tedi and Panguna. Just this year in the Pacific, we’ve seen oil and ore spills in Solomon Islands and the spillage of an estimated 200,000 litres of toxic red slurry from the Ramu Nickel mine in Madang, PNG.”

Besides PNG, the tiny island nation of Nauru has been deep sea mining’s strongest supporter.

Start-up DeepGreen is seeking to extract cobalt and other metals from a 75,000 sq km zone in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific, over which exclusive control has been granted to Nauru. DeepGreen has secured $150m in funding, the bulk from Swiss-based Allseas, to begin feasibility studies.

Nauru is a country already scarred by mining. More than 80% of the tiny island’s landmass has been rendered uninhabitable by phosphate mining during the 20thC, most by colonial powers the UK and Australia.

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Marape Backs Moratorium, Leans Towards Ban On Experimental Seabed Mining

Matthew Vari | Post Courier | August 15, 2019

Prime Minister James Marape has indicated he will support a proposed regional moratorium on seabed mining, however, could not go as far as to say a ban outright would be needed.

In an interview with the Post-Courier at the opening ceremony of the Pacific Islands Forum on Tuesday, Mr Marape responded when asked in relation to Fiji’s stance on the matter, that he would support the move, making specific reference to what he described the Nautilus Solwara 1 project as “a total failure”.

During Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama’s opening remarks at the Sautalaga climate update meet on Monday, he informed leaders present of Fiji introducing its own climate change act, of which the country will push an ambitious proposal for both its national and a regional moratorium on seabed mining.

“I ask you all to join in this ambitious venture and also support a 10 year moratorium on seabed mining from 2020 to 2030 which would allow for a decade of proper scientific research of our economic zone and territorial waters,” Mr Bainimarama said.

Sentiments supported by James Marape regarding the proven viability of deep sea mining, which he said is not yet a proven concept. “As a nation we have lost over K300 million in a concept of deep sea mining.

“Until that deep sea mining technology is environmentally sound and takes care of our environment at the same time we mine it, then at this point in time, I support the call made by the Fijian Prime Minister, we just need to have the best technology available,” Mr Marape sternly said.

When asked if it could go as far as supporting a ban, the Prime Minister left this option out adding just as the moratorium aims to prove the viability- that process will prove “on a case by case basis going into the future”.

“If there is an opportunity for deep sea mining, so long as environmentally it is friendly and the harvest of resource is done in a sustainable manner then we can give considerations to this, but right now it is a show.

“We don’t have the luxury of that informed decisional research.

“This is because that technology is not proven anywhere and PNG we burnt almost K300 million in that Nautilus (Solwara) 1 project on a concept that someone told us it can work, but it is a concept that is a total failure as I speak,” the PM said.

Apart from 15 per cent state investment in the project, Kumul Mineral Holdings is also seeking redress for the unearned revenue to the tune of US$51 million (K173m).

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Fiji calls for sea-bed mining moratorium as Nautilus restructures

Nic Maclellan | Islands Business | August 13, 2019

Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama has again called for a 10-year moratorium on sea-bed mining, at a time that many Pacific island nations are preparing for new frontiers of resource exploitation in the marine environment.

Speaking in Tuvalu this week before the 50th Pacific Islands Forum, Prime Minister Bainimarama called on fellow Forum island states to “support a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining from 2020 to 2030, which would allow for a decade of proper scientific research of our economic zones and territorial waters.”

There is growing pressure from French, Canadian and US corporations to advance the deep-sea mining (DSM) agenda, as well as interest from the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association. Just as energy corporations are looking towards deep-sea oil and gas reserves, companies are developing technology to exploit mineral ore deposits found on the ocean floor, including cobalt crusts, seafloor massive sulphides and ferromanganese nodules.

Fiji’s call for a moratorium comes as community groups across the region are campaigning against potential environmental hazards of deep-sea mining, especially to ecologically sensitive hydrothermal vents. A report from the Guam-based Blue Ocean Law argues:

“There is a general failure to incorporate sufficient environmental protections, as well as the norm of free, prior, and informed consent for indigenous peoples, who are most likely to be impacted by DSM. In the 21st century, and under well-established norms of international law, these omissions represent serious violations of international legal obligations.”

Bainimarama’s call comes the same week as major restructuring of the Nautilus Minerals corporation, which has been planning to commence mining off the coast of Papua New Guinea, under a world-first licence issued by the PNG government.

Fiji and oceans policy

In recent years, Fiji has taken a leading role in ocean policy at the United Nations, working with other Forum island countries through the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) group.

In June 2017, Fiji and Sweden co-hosted the high-level UN Conference on the Oceans and Seas in New York. This conference issued a call for action, highlighting action on ocean acidification, plastics, and overfishing. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres appointed former Fiji UN Ambassador Peter Thomson as the UN Special Envoy on the Ocean.

This global campaigning is also translating into domestic legislation. Speaking in Tuvalu this week, Prime Minister Bainimarama said: “In addition to playing a leadership role in the global Ocean Pathway, we are also developing a National Oceans Policy, under which Fiji plans to move to a 100 per cent sustainable managed Exclusive Economic Zone, with 30 per cent of this being earmarked as a marine protected area by no later than 2030.”

Under the Forum’s “Blue Pacific” agenda, island nations are seeking to draw the links between oceans and climate policy. Bainimarama noted that Fiji was working with the Republic of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Blue Shipping Partnership to develop “a blended and innovative finance structure to support the decarbonisation of domestic marine transportation fleets and facilities in Fiji and across the region. This means replacing inter-island ships with more efficient hybrid ships, thereby reducing fuel costs and emissions.”

Pacific DSM initiatives

Under the provisions of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), many Forum island countries with large EEZs have been in discussions with transnational corporations to partner in deep sea exploration for maritime resources. Under UNCLOS and the authority of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), developing countries can also partner with overseas corporations to licence exploration in “The Area”, international waters that include vast arrays of minerals in Pacific Ocean areas such as the Clarion-Clipperton zone.

Nauru has long been a champion of DSM – at last year’s Forum leaders’ meeting, Nauru President Baron Waqa hosted a side even with ISA Secretary General Michael Lodge and Samantha Smith, the former Head of Environment and Social Responsibility with the deep-sea mining corporation DeepGreen.

This new frontier has drawn in regional organisations, to address legal, technical and regulatory issues around DSM. Boundary limitation is a vital concern as Pacific nations seek to increase potential revenues from fisheries and seabed mining in their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). From 2010-16, the European Union funded the Pacific Community (SPC) to develop model DSM legislation for Forum member states, with many civil society groups concerned this work was promoting rather than regulating DSM.

The SPC Maritime Boundaries Division has also been engaged in technical work to clarify borders between independent island states as well as with colonial powers like France and the United States (for example, Vanuatu and France have been involved in a decades-long dispute over Matthew and Hunter islands).

There are tensions between the administering powers and territorial governments over the control of seabed minerals in the remaining colonies in the region. With an EEZ of nearly 5 million square kilometres, ocean-floor resources could be vitally important for the newest Forum member, French Polynesia. However, as the French government moved to amend French Polynesia’s autonomy statue earlier this year, France’s constitutional court ruled that rare earths can be classified as “strategic metals”, which come under the control of the French State rather than the Government of French Polynesia.  

Independence leaders have long argued against the French State’s control of strategic metals, with former Senator for French Polynesia Richard Ariihau Tuheiava telling the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation in 2017: “We have continually emphasised the critical nature of the resource question as a core issue for our future development. Whether or not these resources are considered in Paris to be ‘strategic’ is irrelevant to the applicability of international legal decisions which place the ownership of natural resources with the people of the non-self-governing territories.”

Collapse of PNG initiative

Early initiatives to begin sea-bed mining in the Pacific have not come to fruition. This week’s set-back to a major project in Papua New Guinea provides a salutary warning about the complexity and potential costs of DSM.

Under a licence issued by the PNG government, Nautilus Minerals has long planned to mine seabed minerals beneath PNG’s Bismarck Sea. However, with widespread community resistance, falling share prices and the loss of a specialised support vessel, Nautilus constantly pushed out the date for commencement of mining.

In February this year, Nautilus filed for court protection from its creditors under the Canadian Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA), and the Canadian-based company was later delisted from the Toronto Stock Exchange. This week, major shareholders MB Holding and Metalloinvest have moved to take control of company assets at the expense of major creditors and smaller shareholders (The PNG Government holds 15 per cent equity in Nautilus’ PNG subsidiary and the Solwara 1 project through the company Eda Kopa).

The looming collapse of the Solwara seabed mining initiative has been welcomed by civil society groups in Papua New Guinea, which have been campaigning against potential adverse impacts on ocean ecology.

Jonathan Mesulam of PNG’s Alliance of Solwara Warriors stated:

“We rejoiced when the company filed for protection from creditors in Canada. Our opposition and our court action have helped push it to that point. Communities across Papua New Guinea want to see the nightmare of deep-sea mining removed from PNG waters. We will re-double our efforts to ensure that the new Nautilus will never operate at Solwara 1.”

Fiji’s call for a moratorium on DSM will be debated in the corridors at this week’s Pacific Islands Forum, but there’s a way to go before all Forum member countries are willing to delay action on the supposed ocean El Dorado.

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‘Urban mining’ can save the deep seabed from exploitation

Collecting copper wires from a dismantled washing machine in the Philippines (Image: Greenpeace)

Improved recycling and a circular economy negates the need for costly and damaging mining of the deep seabed

Natalie LowreyDr Helen Rosenbaum | China DialogueJuly 29, 2019

The world’s first deep-sea mining project to be given an operating licence – Nautilus Minerals’ “Solwara 1” project off Papua New Guinea – appears to have ground to a halt in the face of concerns about its environmental impact and community opposition, culminating in legal action and public appeals to the new national government.

With a resulting lack of investor interest and the loss of its production support vessel last year, it’s difficult to see what the company might now achieve. In its wake, Nautilus has left the Papua New Guinea government facing a debt equivalent to one-third of the country’s annual health budget for its nine million peopleThe fate of Nautilus should send a warning to investors, and nations considering joint ventures with companies.

Early investors jumped ship to form DeepGreen Resources, which is working hard to build its image as a cleaner source of minerals than companies like Nautilus, which aspire to mine hydrothermal vents, or land-based mining companies. Their website describes a sanitised vacuuming up of mineral-rich nodules sitting on the seafloor and claims they will provide “clean metals” for a “sustainable planet”. However, comparisons between the impacts of seabed and terrestrial mining have been shown to be fraught and readily misconstrued by vested interests.

Next year, a little-known UN agency, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), is expected to open up the high seas to mining. The body, which is based in Kingston, Jamaica, is due to finalise its mining code: a set of regulations for exploiting the sea floor in international waters. The ISA has already completed regulations and recommendations for exploration. These have enabled it to grant 29 exploration licences in international waters.

While there is intense interest in the future financial returns that may be available through seabed mining, no commercial seabed mine has yet been established. Thus far the industry remains a speculative and experimental activity driven in large part by commercial and geostrategic competition, as states consider ways to secure access to rare earth minerals that may become increasingly valuable.

In reality, little is known about the impacts of nodule mining. What is known points to serious and irreversible impacts on marine ecosystems. Industry narratives also totally ignore the rights of maritime communities to maintain their social, economic, cultural and spiritual connections to their oceans. They omit the fact that the minerals they seek to exploit – cobalt, nickel, copper, manganese and rare earths – are finite even on our deep seabeds. 

Interest in alternative sources of minerals is growing among civil society, scientists and companies, with work being undertaken towards “urban mining” and the shift to a circular economy.

The circular economy describes an economic system grounded in “cradle to cradle” product design, reconditioning, waste prevention and closed-loop production processes. In response to the momentum, several companies have already put circular economy principles into practice. 

Apple announced in 2017 it would “stop mining the Earth altogether” and the European commission has introduced a circular economic framework. Interestingly, the European parliament has called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until the need for it has been proven, as have prominent scientists, academics and civil society organisations.

There is already investment in urban mining, which is the process of “reclaiming compounds and elements from products, buildings and waste”. A staggering 320 tons of gold and more than 7,500 tons of silver estimated to be worth $US21 billion is used annually to make personal computers, mobile phones, tablets and other electronic products worldwide. There is an abundance of gold, silver, rare earths and copper in the waste generated by the disposal of these products. It is estimated that electronic waste contains precious metal “deposits” 40 to 50 times richer than the ores currently mined.

Urban mining could be more lucrative as well as dealing with an otherwise intractable waste problem, while at the same time capable of meeting future global mineral demand.

The choice for all of us, including investors, should be clear – and in fact is a “no brainer. On the one hand there are the financial, social and environmental risks of deep-sea mining. On the other, there is the financial, social and environmental win-win of a metal resources future which focuses on urban mining and the transition to a circular economy, in which virgin mining plays only a minor role.

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Cook Islands PM: ‘Conservation is in our blood’

Prime Minister Henry Puna arriving at 11th Conference of the Pacific Community in Noumea, New Caledonia. 19062018

Losirene Lacanivalu | Cook Island News | June 21, 2019

Cook Islands’ declaration of two million square kilometres of ocean as “sacred” captured the imagination of delegates at a major oceans conference in New Caledonia this week.

Prime Minister Henry Puna explained to the 11th Conference of the Pacific Community that the Cook Islands had declared their entire exclusive economic zone as Marae Moana.

At the local scale as a veteran pearl farmer, and at the national scale as prime minister, he relied on scientific and technical data to make evidence-based decisions for the good of the community and the oceans far into the future, Puna said.

This protected area was just one example of how the Cook Islands were putting the Blue Pacific narrative into action.

Puna’s words coincided with another regional resolution, across the ocean at Pohnpei in Micronesia, seeking to preserve the Pacific’s tuna fisheries and affirming that climate change was the single greatest threat to regional security.

Puna said the Sustainable Development Goals aimed to conserve at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas by 2020. “With Marae Moana, we have exceeded the expectations of the goals.”

Puna said the Marae Moana law provided a framework to make resourcing decisions on integrated management through adopting a precautionary approach to the marine environment, in sustaining fishery stocks, and environmental impact assessments for seabed mining.

Forty years of ocean survey work suggested that as many as 10 billion tonnes of mineral rich manganese nodules were spread over the Cook Islands Continental Shelf.

These seabed mineral resources offered a significant opportunity for the long-term sustainable economic and social development of the Cook Islands, he said.

But he said any decisions on whether the recovery of seabed minerals will take place must start by gathering technical data, and using scientific analysis.

The Pacific Community’s work with the Cook Islands had proven invaluable in availing, over many years, scientific and technical data to all members, to ensure evidence-based decisions.

The Cook Islands should not be viewed as a small island, but as a large ocean state. “The Blue Pacific may be a new phrase for the region, but we have been practicing this approach as stewards of the Pacific Ocean Continent for generations.

“The people of the Cook Islands, like Pacific people throughout our region, are born conservationists. Conservation is in our blood. By protecting our ecosystems, we conserve our cultural heritage and ensure that we can pass that heritage to future generations,” Puna added.

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Deep sea mining start-up secures bulk of $150m funding round

Cut cobalt cathodes. More than 60% of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo © Bloomberg

DeepGreen’s financing follows years of regulatory uncertainty and environmental concerns

Henry Sanderson | Financial Times | 9 June 2019

DeepGreen, a start-up that wants to suck cobalt and other battery metals from the bottom of the ocean, has secured the backing of offshore pipeline company Allseas as part of a $150m funding round.

The financing is a rare sign of progress for deep sea mining after years of regulatory uncertainty and environmental concerns.

Switzerland-based Allseas will provide the bulk of the $150m and contribute engineering expertise, DeepGreen said. The money will enable the company to carry out feasibility studies on how it can suck small metallic rocks containing cobalt, nickel and manganese from the seabed, thousands of metres below the surface.

“Our partnership with Allseas will ultimately help us open up a new, disruptive source of battery metals for the green revolution and transform the mining industry as we know it,” Gerard Barron, the chief executive of DeepGreen, said.

Supporters of deep sea mining say it offers an alternative to land-based mining and can help the world meet an expected surge in demand for metals from batteries over the next decade. More than 60 per cent of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, while nickel is mined in Indonesia, Russia and New Caledonia.

DeepGreen says the carbon dioxide produced from lifting nodules from the sea floor is lower than land-based mining since the process requires no blasting, drilling or digging.

But critics say mining the deep sea risks destroying sensitive and unexplored habitats at the bottom of the ocean. Environmental group Greenpeace has called for an international agreement to protect the oceans from mining.

“Scientists warn that deep sea mining risks inflicting severe and potentially irreversible harm to ocean ecosystems that we know so little about,” Greenpeace said. “Profit is being placed before protection and we urgently need a strong ‘Global Oceans Treaty’ that safeguards the deep ocean from reckless exploitation by companies such as DeepGreen.”

The first company to attempt to mine the deep sea, Nautilus Minerals, was delisted from the Toronto Stock Exchange in March after financial difficulties. The company had planned to mine the deep sea in waters surrounding Papua New Guinea.

The International Seabed Authority, a UN body that grants licences to mine in international waters, is expected to complete its first set of regulations to enable deep sea mining to go ahead by 2020, according to UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin.

“Uncertainty in the future regulatory regime for mineral exploitation remains the principal barrier to development of an environmentally responsible and commercially viable deep seabed mining industry,” Christopher Williams, head of UK Seabed Resources, said.

DeepGreen is looking to extract metals in a 75,000 sq km zone in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific, granted to the island state of Nauru.

Allseas is a private company known for having built the world’s largest construction vessel, the Pioneering Spirit, which can install and remove offshore oil rigs in a single lift.

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NOC: Environmental Impact of Deep-Sea Mining can Last Decades

Unique deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems that harbour chemosynthetic life forms such as giant tubeworms. Active mining of vents would destroy these rare ecosystems (Image: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program)

Maritime Executive | 30 May 2019

A new study shows that the impacts of seabed mining on deep-sea ecosystems can persist for decades. 

Scientists at the U.K.’s National Oceanography Centre (NOC) revisited a site exposed to deep-sea mining activity nearly 30 years previously to assess seabed and ecosystem recovery. They used a robot submarine to map and photograph much of the seafloor in the disturbed area in unprecedented detail. The images were combined into a seafloor photo-mosaic completely covering 11 hectares of seabed, the largest ever photo-mosaic obtained in the abyssal ocean. Tracks on the seafloor caused by the simulated mining were still clearly visible, and the impacts on marine life initially observed in 1989 persist.  

The study, recently published in Scientific Reports, was able to pinpoint individual animals over a wide area and relate their abundance and distribution to the tracks. While mobile species, such as sea cucumbers and sea stars, were able to recolonize impacted areas, many animals, such as sponges and sea anemones, live attached to the seafloor and remained virtually absent from directly disturbed seabed. Given the important role of these animals in abyssal ecosystems, the results of the study suggest that impacts of large-scale commercial mining could potentially lead to an irreversible loss of key ecosystem functions, says the NOC.

The target of this type of deep-sea mining is polymetallic nodules, potato-shaped rocks rich in copper and manganese. These nodules provide a stable anchoring point for the development of anemones, soft corals and sponges, and promote the development of diverse communities on otherwise muddy seabed. The nodules take millions of years to form. Removal or burial of nodules from mining activities will remove the home of many of these filter-feeding animals, constraining their capacity to recolonize impacted zones and further delaying ecosystem recovery processes. 

The site investigated lies in the deep Pacific Ocean off Peru at around 4,000 meters water depth. It was disturbed as an experiment in 1989 by a team of German researchers. This is still to date the largest disturbance experiment carried out in an abyssal environment. 

The study is the result of a collaboration between the NOC and the GEOMAR institute in Kiel (Germany) funded by the European Union Joint Programming Initiative (JPI-Oceans), an international project aiming to assess the ecological aspects of deep-sea mining. The NOC is working with the U.K. Government and the International Seabed Authority to inform developing regulations regarding deep-sea mining.

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