Category Archives: Pacific region

Cooks opposition backs seabed mining moratorium

Radio New Zealand | 15 October 2019

The Democratic Party of the Cook Islands is backing a call by some Pacific countries and civil organisations for a 10-year moratorium on any seabed mining activity.

The opposition party said there were too many unknowns about the seabed and long-term impact of mining it.

Party leader Tina Browne said a precautionary approach would afford Pacific island countries, including the Cook Islands, time to gather and learn from more scientific data.

Ms Browne is urging the government to be completely transparent and cautious about any ventures to exploit the local seabed to harvest stocks of manganese nodules concentrated in the South Penrhyn Basin.

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Deep sea sponges may hold key to antibiotic resistance

A group of “Venus’ flower basket” glass sponges, with a squat lobster in the middle (Image: NOAA)

The scientists who discovered antibiotic properties in a deep-sea sponge warn that such breakthroughs could be lost in the face of mineral exploitation

Jessica Aldred | China Dialogue | October 9, 2019

Prof Mat Upton is a medical microbiologist and Dr Kerry Howell is a deep-sea marine ecologist. At the University of Plymouth they have discovered antimicrobial properties in bacteria that live in a species of deep-sea sponge ­– a potential breakthrough in the fight against antibiotic-resistant superbugs. But they warn that such potential could be lost in the drive to exploit the ocean floor for minerals.

Jessica Aldred (JA): What did you discover and how?

Mat Upton (MU): We’ve grown bacteria from the sponges that Kerry has retrieved from the deep-sea floor and tested them in the lab to see if they kill other bacteria. 

Kerry Howell (KH): Sponges are one of the most promising sources of potential medical uses, with 145 reported antimicrobial compounds isolated between 2001 and 2010.

However, almost all research undertaken so far has been on sponges from shallow waters. At Plymouth we have begun to look at a number of different deep-sea sponge species. One that has shown promising results is from the genus Euplectella, found between 700 to 1,700 metres deep in the north-east Atlantic.

It is one of the best studied deep-sea regions in the world, but for many of the species we are working on, we don’t even have the most basic information beyond their identity.

A medically promising glass sponge species from the genus Euplectella, retrieved by Kerry from the Atlantic seabed and potentially new to science (Image: Plymouth University, Marine Institute Ireland, Eurofleets 2)

MU: By combining our expertise, we have begun to investigate the unknown microbiomes of several deep-sea sponges. Through this work, using cutting-edge DNA-sequencing technologies and novel strategies to maximise the diversity of bacteria we can grow from sponge samples, we have been able to isolate novel bacteria that produce antibiotic compounds that kill drug-resistant pathogens, including superbugs like MRSA and E coli.

JA: Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is one of the biggest threats to global human health. How do your findings help?

MU: The risk posed by AMR requires that we find new antibiotics to fight drug-resistant infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. By looking in new natural environments, we may find new antibiotics that work in different ways to the ones we currently use.

In the case of our work on deep-sea sponges, it has been demonstrated in a number of studies that individual sponge species harbour relatively specific bacterial populations. The number of sponge species present in these unseen deep-sea environments has not been determined. It is likely that there are many new to science in these locations, each one with the potential of hosting new bacteria. These novel bacteria in turn are likely to produce antibiotics, and other medicines, that are new to science. We have only looked in detail at the microbiomes of two or three different sponge species and we’ve already potentially found some new antibiotics. Expand this to other sponge species we have not even seen and the possibilities are clear.

We’ve also only just begun to look at antibiotic compounds. There are many other lines of enquiry into medically relevant compounds that we’ve not started. Sponges and their microbial populations can produce anti-cancer compounds, analgesics, immune modulators and many other bioactive compounds.

KH: There is a real possibility that with the onset of deep-sea mining we could be destroying species that have important biomedical potential before we even know they exist. We may also be having an impact on the other ecosystem services that the deep sea provides, like climate regulation. At present our lack of understanding means it is difficult to predict potential outcomes beyond the obvious negative consequences. This, in turn, makes it difficult to make informed decisions about how this new industry operates and is managed.

JA: How significant is your discovery?

MU: By looking at the DNA of the bacteria that we have grown from the sponges, we can see that they are not the same as anything that has been grown previously. Some are closely related to previously seen bacteria, but others appear to be really quite novel, possibly new species. We have purified some antibiotic compounds from these bacteria and they are also new to science.

One way to ensure that new antibiotics work against the current drug-resistant superbugs is to use completely new antibiotics. There have been no new classes of antibiotic used in clinical therapy in the last 30 years. The antibiotic compounds we’re finding could be of new classes, giving them a head start against drug-resistant bacteria. This is very significant.

JA: The International Seabed Authority met in July to continue negotiations over a mining code that would govern eventual exploitation. Would mining threaten these sponge species?

KH: Deep-sea mining is a new industry in development. There are three types of deep-sea mining resource recognised, all pertaining to different deep-sea habitats. Polymetallic nodules are found on the abyssal plain, polymetallic sulphides are present as hydrothermal vents, and ferromanganese crusts on some seamounts and ridges.

All of these different resources offer a potential supply of important metals, rare earth elements and other minerals that are used in electronics and the renewable energy sector. We currently stand on the brink of exploitation of the deep sea for these resources. But as we may gain in one way, we potentially lose out in another.

We know that society’s wellbeing is linked to the health of the deep sea through a wide range of ecosystem services as diverse as climate regulation to food security. As a result of our work, we now know that deep-sea species may also hold the key to the problem of antibiotic resistance. What we don’t know is the impact mining will have on the deep-sea ecosystem.

Mining is, by its very nature, destructive, and will result in the destruction of species and habitats. Our knowledge of deep-sea species and habitats remains sparse. This is perhaps highlighted by the fact that recent studies of the main area licensed for polymetallic nodule mining, the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone in the central Pacific, have found up to 90% of species sampled were new to science.

JA: More and more scientists are calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until more is known about the species and the potential damage that mining will cause. What would you like to see happen?

KH: Our ecological knowledge of the deep sea has not kept pace with industrial development. There needs to be significant coordinated global effort and investment in research to enable us to forecast potential impacts of mining activities, as well as effects of cumulative stressors such as mining, climate change and fishing acting together.

Only then can we hope to effectively manage, not just this industry, but our oceans as a whole in line with UN Sustainable Development Goal 14. The UN Decade of Ocean Science (2021-2030) offers a 10-year period in which such efforts could be made.

A 10-year moratorium on mining in the Area (international waters that belong to no one nation), coupled with a global programme of targeted deep-sea research, would be the precautionary way to move forward.

JA: The high seas treaty that is currently being negotiated includes who shares the rights to marine genetic resources. Will this treaty help the situation?

KH: The treaty will support the sustainable management of areas of biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction by providing legal mechanisms and processes through which coordinated management actions, including the designation of marine protected areas, can happen. At the moment human activities in these areas are managed by a plethora of different organisations and there is no mechanism for a coordinated approach.

For example, we could have a situation where a regional fisheries management organisation has closed an area to bottom trawling for the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems, but that same area is then licensed for deep-sea mining exploration. The same area could also support species that have promising medical uses, or be very important to other ecosystem services. We need to take a holistic approach but such an approach needs legal processes and mechanisms to be put in place, and that is what I hope this treaty will do. It will also hopefully mean that all nations benefit from potential discoveries, not just those with the technology to exploit these very difficult to study deep-sea habitats.

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NZ support for seabed mining on offer in Pacific

Seabed mining in the Pacific has become a controversial topic – but New Zealand is willing to support nations who want to mine if they ask for support. File photo: Getty Images

Despite uncertainty over the environmental impact, some Pacific countries are pushing ahead with plans to mine their seabeds for minerals – and New Zealand has offered a helping hand.

Sam Sachdeva | Newsroom | 8 October 2019

The New Zealand Government will help Pacific countries carry out seabed mining within their marine territories if asked, despite calls for a 10-year moratorium on the controversial practice.

The Government has refused to reveal which countries it has already assisted, with one environmental group urging New Zealand to reverse its policy and protect the marine environment in the Pacific.

Advocates of the extraction activity have argued it can provide a sustainable and replenishing supply of minerals, while critics have expressed fears about the impact of mining on aquatic habitats and the destruction of the ocean floor.

In New Zealand, a company planning to dredge the ocean floor for minerals off the coast of New Plymouth has headed to the Court of Appeal to win back a mining consent.

But the topic is of concern in the wider Pacific region, with some countries calling for a moratorium on the practice until the environmental impacts are better understood.

In a May briefing to Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters, officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade set out New Zealand’s approach to any requests for support from Pacific nations planning to mine the seabed in their exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

The countries’ sovereign rights to utilise the natural resources within their EEZs had to be balanced with protecting the environment and biodiversity, as well as the needs of future generations.

With early indications that the technology and investment from seabed mining in the Pacific would come from “external actors” – a potential reference to China,which has developed a growing interest in seabed mining– officials said countries would need robust legal frameworks, governance structures and environmental protections in place before entering into any agreements.

It was also important than any deals protected the country’s sovereignty and provided a fair financial return.

New Zealand agencies like the Department of Conservation and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment could help Pacific countries with establishing regulatory, environmental and governance processes for seabed mining.

Support in those areas “would not be inconsistent with the New Zealand Government’s domestic policies for the sustainable management of non-living natural resources,” the briefing said.

“New Zealand will not actively encourage seabed mining in the EEZ of Pacific Island partners, but when approached for assistance New Zealand Government and agencies can support [them] to ensure that environmental protection and good governance frameworks are in place to reduce risk to the marine environment and national interests.”

Among the key principles for New Zealand when considering any requests for support were promoting the sustainable management of natural resources, protecting the environment from pollution, and supporting countries to meet their obligations under international law.

Any support from New Zealand should also align with the Pacific Island Forum’s regional ocean objectives, the briefing said.

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama is among the Pacific leaders calling for a moratorium on seabed mining in the region

However, Pacific leaders have been at odds over the issue, with some regional heavyweights supporting calls for a temporary ban.

Speaking at the Pacific Islands Forum in August, Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama called on leaders to support a 10-year moratorium from 2020 to 2030, which he said “would allow for a decade of proper scientific research of our economic zone and territorial waters”.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape has also indicated he would support a moratorium, with his country attempting to recover more than NZ$174 million which it sunk into a failed deep sea mining project.

However, the Cook Islands has announced it will “take the lead” on seabed mining and start activity within five years, with Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown citing a potential reduction in development aid as a driver for the move.

Greenpeace NZ oceans campaigner Jessica Desmond told Newsroom that New Zealand’s position was concerning, with seabed mining carried out using an experimental technique which had never been tested in New Zealand.

“Around the world they’re kind of looking for the precedent setting of where it’s going to be allowed and how it’s going to happen…we don’t know what the environmental impact of this practice is, other than it will be pretty damaging.”

Desmond said New Zealand needed to support the calls for a moratorium from countries like Fiji, given the Pacific’s dependence upon their ocean ecosystems.

“We haven’t consented it in New Zealand, and…saying ‘we’re not going to do it here but we’re going to facilitate you guys to do it’ seems quite off to me.”

It was “short-sighted” for Pacific nations to turn to seabed mining for wealth generation, given the long-term damage such activities would cause, she said.

“If you’re looking at a small Pacific Island nation who depends so much on the ocean, even at a community level…sucking up the seabed and dumping everything back down is going to be much more destructive in the long-term in terms of what their marine resources can supply for them.”

Asked for comment on the Government’s stance and why it was not backing a moratorium, Peters’ office referred Newsroom to MFAT for comment.

In a written statement, an MFAT spokeswoman said the Government was “not in a position to release information about countries who might have requested assistance”, but reiterated the need to balance Pacific sovereignty with environmental protections.

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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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