Tag Archives: experimental seabed mining

Plastic bag found in Mariana Trench, deepest place on Earth

A plastic bag has been found on the ocean floor in the Mariana Trench almost 11km below the sea surface.

“There is a growing concern that deep-sea ecosystems have already been and will be seriously impacted by direct exploitation of biological and non-biological resources, deep-sea trawling and mining, and infrastructure development, such as hydrocarbon plants and submarine cables,”

Michael Daly | Stuff NZ | May 11 2018

A plastic bag has been seen nearly 11km under the ocean in the Earth’s deepest feature, the Mariana Trench.

The discovery was revealed in a recently-established database that shows the deep oceans are awash with rubbish.

Set up by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) in March 2017, the database lists 3425 items of human-made debris seen in the deep sea.

The items were spotted during a total of 5010 dives made since 1983 by deep sea submersibles and remotely operated vehicles.

More than a third of the items were plastic, and of those, 89 per cent were single-use products, a study in Marine Policy said.

The plastic bag found in the Mariana Trench was at a depth of 10,898 metres. That’s not far from the very bottom, which scientists revealed to be 10,994m in a 2011 survey, The Telegraph reported

“The data shows that …  the influence of land-based human activities has reached the deepest parts of the ocean in areas more than 1000km from the mainland,” the study said.

The items reported in the database mostly came from the western North Pacific Ocean.

Metal debris was the second most common of the items seen on the dives at 26 per cent, rubber accounted for 1.8 per cent, fishing gear for 1.7 per cent, glass for 1.4 per cent, cloth/paper/lumber for1.3 per cent, and other anthropogenic items accounted for 35 per cent.

Most of the debris was seen at depths of 1000-2000 metres, but that was also the depth of most of the dives in the database. The ratio of plastic to other debris increased with depth, getting to 52 per cent below 6000m.

“There is a growing concern that deep-sea ecosystems have already been and will be seriously impacted by direct exploitation of biological and non-biological resources, deep-sea trawling and mining, and infrastructure development, such as hydrocarbon plants and submarine cables,” the study said.

“In addition to those direct impacts, the observed distribution of plastic debris clearly indicates that land-based human activities have also been affecting deep-sea ecosystems.”

Researchers speculated organisms could hitch-hike on plastic bags from shallow waters to the deeper ocean. “This stepping stone effect may alter the food web and biogeo-chemical function of the deep sea ecosystems,” they said.

Deep sea anemones had been seen on plastic bags on the muddy sea floor during several dives. “Because those animals need hard substrates to attach to and thus cannot inhabit soft bottoms, deep-sea plastic debris possibly plays the role of a stepping stone for sessile animals to expand their original distribution.”

The database only showed information of the sea floor, and most of the areas covered were within countries’ exclusive economic zones, the study said.

“However, as the deep sea is likely to be the final destination of floating plastic debris, the frequent occurrence and widespread distribution of plastic debris in the deep sea, far away from populated coastal areas, indicate that large numbers of plastic debris pieces are distributed throughout the water column and in the high seas.”

The study indicated “a clear link between daily human activities and remote environments where no direct human activities occur”.

“Plastic is estimated to potentially remain for hundreds to thousands of years once they are deposited in the deep sea where there is no UV light and less turbulence,” the authors said.

“Minimising the production of plastic waste and its flow into the coastal areas and the ocean is the only fundamental solution to the problem of deep-sea plastic pollution.”

The authors called for biologically and ecologically important areas with high plastic debris concentrations to be prioritised in future studies. They also wanted priority to be given to working out where the plastic getting to those areas came from.

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Anglo American divests from Nautilus over risks of deep sea mining

Major mining company withdraws from high risk Solwara 1 deep sea mining project – will Nautilus Minerals go under before reaching the ocean floor?

Deep Sea Mining Campaign | Monday 7 May 2018

In advance of their London AGM on 8th May, Anglo American has exclusively confirmed to the Deep Sea Mining Campaign that they have exited their investment in the Nautilus Minerals Solwara 1 deep sea mining project.

Dr. Helen Rosenbaum, of the Deep Sea Mining Campaign said:

“We are pleased that Anglo American engaged with us and listened to the concerns of coastal and islands communities in Papua New Guinea, whose environment and way of life would be devastated by Nautilus’s proposed Solwara 1 mine.”

Dr. Rosenbaum continued:

“Anglo’s decision to dump their minority stake in this controversial and floundering company was the only option consistent with their international commitments to sustainability, human rights, and environmental stewardship.  Deep sea mining is financially and environmentally risky. The legitimacy of the Solwara 1 project has been questionable right from the outset with independent reviews highlighting significant flaws in the Solwara 1 Environmental Impact Statement.” 

Legal action launched by Papua New Guinean communities will also answer questions about whether the Solwara 1 project was lawfully approved. In the meantime local communities have turned out in force at formal hearings held in PNG’s New Ireland Province to object to the extension of Nautilus exploration licences. 

Anglo’s decision reinforces the growing opposition to deep sea mining. Sir David Attenborough is the latest to add his voice against this hazardous and unnecessary emerging industry, describing the Solwara 1 project as “deeply tragic.”

Andy Whitmore of the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, who will attend the Anglo American AGM noted that:

“In terms of financial and reputational risk, Anglo American have chosen a good time to be exiting. But for Nautilus it looks like it could not have come at a worse time, and may well be the final nail in the coffin for this dangerous experiment.”

“The company continues to limp along with bridging loans from its two long term major shareholders – MB Holdings and Metalloinvest – while continuing to accumulate significant debt with interest payable at 8% per annum.  One wonders how long this can continue and when these shareholders will be forced to pull the plug.”

Nautilus’ recent investor updates reveals it is even unable to raise the finance to complete the Production Support Vessel essential to its operational model.  The investor update notes “there can be no assurances that the Company will be successful in securing the necessary additional financing transactions within the required time or at all.”

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NZ Scientists to simulate controversial seabed mining effects

The Chatham Rise is home to an abundance of seafloor species. Trawling operations and seabed mining proposals there have been controversial. (Photo / File)

Jamie Morton | NZ Herald | 7 May 2018

Kiwi scientists investigating the impacts of controversial seabed mining are about to simulate the effects themselves, in one of the most challenging underwater experiments Niwa [National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research] has ever attempted.

Only two seabed ventures have ever been developed in New Zealand and both have been met with staunch opposition.

That was amid concern the operations would disturb sea life at their operation sites – and more widely through drifting plumes of sediment and other environmental effects.

In an MBIE-funded effort to learn more about the impacts, scientists will deploy at least nine high-tech instruments on the seabed on the Chatham Rise – the area off the Canterbury coast where one company has plans to mine phosphate.

Among the equipment, to be placed in water 500m deep, is an underwater glider, three undersea observational platforms known as “benthic landers”, a multi-corer to take sediment samples, seabed moorings, water column sampling equipment, an underwater camera that will be towed above the seafloor and a “benthic disturber”.

The dispersal of the plume will then be monitored, and surveys before and after the disturbance will measure the effects on the seabed animals.

Voyage leader and Niwa principal scientist Dr Malcolm Clark said some of the equipment has not been tried before in this situation and deploying so many instruments at once was “extraordinarily complex”.

“However, this is very important work that will enable us to provide information about the nature and extent of impacts associated with human activities in the deep sea and the level of resilience of the organisms living there.”

The data collected will be used to build up a picture of how the biological communities on the seabed may be affected by the sediment stirred up by mining, as well as bottom-trawl fishing.

Uncertainty about the effects of sediment plumes had contributed to applications for seabed mining being declined – and the plumes were also a big environmental concern for sustainable fisheries certification.

Niwa’s research vessel Tangaroa will lead the expedition. Photo / File

“These activities create plumes of sediment but we don’t know how the sediment affects seabed life as it settles again on the seafloor, and how much deep-sea animals can withstand,” Clark said.

“We are doing this experiment on a small scale on the Chatham Rise but it will give us a much better idea of how environmental managers and industry can work to mitigate larger-scale disturbance effects.”

The benthic disturber was about 4.5m-long and 2.4m-wide and contained a pump that mixed sediment with water and turned it into a slurry as it was towed along.

The slurry was then pumped out a central chimney to create the plume, which would be tracked and monitored as it drifted and dispersed through the ocean. It was estimated the disturbance would take place over about half a square kilometre of seabed.

The benthic landers, which have been built by Niwa and not yet used at sea, would carry a variety of high-definition cameras, lights and instruments to record physical, chemical and biological activity.

Niwa’s ocean glider and a modified acoustic towfish would follow research vessel Tangaroa, measuring turbidity and the density of the plume, while water samples from inside and outside the plume will be collected.

A towed camera would also record high-definition still images and video of the seafloor, which would be sampled by small coring and sled equipment.

Three seabed moorings were also being installed at an undisturbed control site, where they would remain for a year.

The information they record would be used for comparison with the disturbed area.

A lab-based programme would run alongside the work at sea that will provide further information on the resilience of the seabed ecosystem.

The research team planned to collect live sponges and corals and bring them back to a Niwa laboratory, where their resilience to various sediment loads will be tested.

“We will compare the measurements taken during the Chatham Rise disturbance experiment with a controlled experiment in the lab, which may be able to tell us the tipping point at which these communities either cope well or are significantly impacted,” Clark said.

“The field and laboratory studies together will be a powerful combination to address when too much sediment is ecologically significant.”

The collaborative project was the first of three surveys, with the monitoring to be repeated next year and in 2020 to measure longer-term effects and potential recovery of seabed communities.

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Deep-sea mining possibly as damaging as land mining, lawyers say

Deep-sea mining off Papua New Guinea’s coast. Legal and environmental groups warn of danger to the environment and Indigenous groups who live nearby

Environmental and legal groups warn of potential huge effects on Indigenous people and the environment

Ben Doherty | The Guardian | 18 April 2018 

The “new global gold rush” over deep-sea mining holds the same potential pitfalls as previous resource scrambles, with environmental and social impacts ignored and the rights of Indigenous people marginalised, a paper in the Harvard Environmental Law Review has warned.

A framework for deep-sea mining – where polymetallic nodules or hydrothermal vents are mined by machine – was first articulated in the 1960s, on an idea that the seabed floor beyond national jurisdiction was a “common heritage of mankind”.

But exploration has gathered momentum in the past three years, with licences granted off Papua New Guinea’s coastlines, and successful mining off Japan late last year. The International Seabed Authority, which is drawing up a draft mining code, has issued 29 exploration contracts for undersea mining in international waters beyond any national jurisdiction.

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. Different methods exist, but most involve using some form of converted machinery previously used in terrestrial mining to excavate materials from the sea floor, at depths of up to 6,000 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.

But environmental and legal groups have urged 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.

“Despite arising in the last half century, the ‘new global gold rush’ of deep-sea mining shares many features with past resource scrambles – including a general disregard for environmental and social impacts, and the marginalisation of Indigenous peoples and their rights,” the paper, written by Julie Hunter and Julian Aguon, from Blue Ocean Law, and Pradeep Singh, from the Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, Bremen, argues.

The authors say that knowledge of the deep seabed remains extremely limited.

“The surface of the moon, Mars and even Venus have all been mapped and studied in much greater detail, leading marine scientists to commonly remark that, with respect to the deep sea, ‘We don’t yet know what we need to know.’ ”

Scientific research – including a recent paper in Marine Policy journal – has suggested the deep seabed, and hydrothermal vents in particular, have crucial impacts upon biodiversity and global climate regulations.

Hydrothermal vents act as a sink, sequestering carbon and methane. The mineral-rich vents and their surrounds are also home to animals and organisms including crustaceans, tubeworms, clams, slugs, anemones and fish.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that deep-sea mining poses a grave threat to these vital seabed functions,” the paper says. “Extraction methods would involve the operation of large, remote vehicles on the seafloor to chemically leach or physically cut crust from substrate and/or use highly pressurised water to strip the crust.

“All of these methods would produce large sediment plumes and involve the discharge of waste and tailings back into the ocean, significantly disturbing seafloor environments.”

The Harvard Environmental Law Review article says the exploratory phase of deep-sea mining has already adversely affected Indigenous people in the Pacific. In Tonga, large mining prospecting vessels have disturbed traditional fishing grounds, and in PNG villagers bordering the exploration site in the Bismarck sea have reported high incidence of dead fish washed ashore.

The paper argues for governments globally to reform the international seabed regime to reflect modern developments in law and science, and to protect potentially vulnerable communities.

“They should recognise the risks of operating in an unknown environment, fully embrace the precautionary approach, and protect and conserve the ocean for the benefit of current and future generations,” it says.

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NZ seabed iron sand mining decision reserved

Opponents of seabed iron sand mining gathered more than 6000 signatures on a petition calling for a moratorium on seabed mining. (File photo: Monique Ford)

Stuff | April 19 2018

The finely balanced decision to consent to seabed mining of iron sand might have swung the other way if the decision makers had properly considered some factors, a lawyer says.

Eleven parties have appealed against the consents that were granted last August to Trans-Tasman Resources Ltd.

The appeal hearing in the High Court at Wellington wrapped up on Thursday with Justice Peter Churchman reserving his decision.

The 66 square kilometres off the South Taranaki coast (shown in dark green) where Trans Tasman Resources has applied to mine iron ore.

The final speaker was Davey Salmon, a lawyer for Greenpeace and Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, who said the consent decision had been as finally balanced as it was possible to be.

The Environmental Protection Authority had appointed a four-person decision making committee.

When the committee was deadlocked the chairman had the deciding vote, so even though members of the committee were split two against two, the outcome was that the consents were granted.

Salmon said the committee did not have enough information on which to make its decision, and did not give proper weight to issues that counted against allowing seabed mining.

The committee chairman had a legal obligation to exercise the casting vote favouring caution, and exercise caution where information was lacking, he said.

Trans-Tasman Resources’ lawyer, Justin Smith, QC, said it was unlikely the chairman was meant to change his vote because another committee member disagreed with him.

Even if the judge found against Trans-Tasman Resources on one or more points, it did not mean the decision had to be quashed, Smith said. He asked for a further hearing to discuss the consequences, if the judge intended to allow the appeal.

The lawyer for Māori and fishing interests, Francis Cooke, QC, said the two members who granted the consents had not grappled with a key problem.

The seabed that was to be mined was in the exclusive economic zone off the south Taranaki coast, up to the boundary of the coastal marine area, closer to shore, which came under resource management rules.

Mining would create a significant sediment plume that would spread into the coastal marine area where it was prohibited, Cooke said.

Trans-Tasman Resources said the marine consent and marine discharge consent it was granted were enough to allow mining to proceed, but the opponents said resource consent was also needed.

Regardless of that issue, it was already signalled that whichever way the judge decided, the outcome was likely to be appealed.

The committee granted the 35-year consents subject to conditions, including that two years of monitoring had to take place before Trans-Tasman Resources was allowed to begin mining up to 50 million tonnes of seabed material a year to extract iron ore for export.

A remote-controlled dredge would vacuum sand from the sea bed in depths between about 20 metres and 42m, to a processing ship. The dredging was planned in an area 22 kilometres to 36km offshore from Patea.

It was planned that about 90 per cent of the material would be returned to the sea. Opponents said the noise and sediment plume would cause fish to avoid the area, and would result in long term, if not permanent, damage to the environment and cultural concerns of Māori.

The company said the area was already intensively fished, had gas and oil installations, and was a rugged environment subject to naturally occurring sediment flows from rivers.

Taranaki iwi Ngāti Ruanui, and Trustees of Te Kaahui o Rauru, along with Greenpeace, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, the Taranaki-Whanganui Conservation Board, Cloudy Bay Clams, the Federation of Commercial Fishermen, Southern Inshore Fisheries Management Company, Talleys Group, and Te Ohu Kai Moana Trustee Ltd, appealed against the consents.

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Harvard Environmental Law Review Calls For Precautionary Approach to Seabed Mining

Harvard Environmental Law Review Calls For Precautionary New Legal Standards

Post Courier | April 17, 2018

Today, the Harvard Environmental Law Review published an article entitled, “Broadening Common Heritage: Addressing Gaps in the Deep Sea Mining Regulatory Regime.” The article provides a new perspective on the incipient global industry of seabed mining, heralded as the next extractive frontier despite growing concerns and opposition from civil society, scientific experts, and indigenous groups worldwide.

“Deep sea mining has been framed by proponents as a lucrative mineral windfall with minimal impacts,” says author Julie Hunter, attorney and Clinic Fellow at the University of British Columbia. “This narrative entirely disregards recent scientific information linking the deep seabed with major climate regulation and biodiversity functions. Destroying these ecosystems before more can be learned about them not only risks major health and fisheries impacts – it could completely upend global climate change efforts.”

The article provides a brief overview of the so-called ‘gold-rush’ for seabed minerals, in which countries and companies have scrambled to buy up licenses for seabed exploration covering millions of square kilometers of ocean, before environmental and regulatory standards have even been drafted. With Japan becoming the first country to successfully mine its deep seabed in 2017, and Canadian company Nautilus Minerals scheduled to begin the world’s first commercial operation in Papua New Guinea’s waters in 2019, deep sea mining is rapidly becoming a reality.

However, the risks of operating in an unknown environment less documented than Mars are starting to become apparent. In 2016, a consortium of scientists and oceanographers released a study detailing the critical carbon sequestration functions of deep sea hydrothermal vents and methane seeps. Combined with other studies establishing irreversible impacts from seabed mining, these findings trigger a body of protective environmental and human rights law, including the precautionary principle and the need to obtain free, prior, and informed consent from indigenous and other affected peoples.

“Pacific Islanders have already suffered negative consequences as a result of mere exploratory mining in the region,” says author Julian Aguon, attorney and founder of Blue Ocean Law—a law firm that works throughout the Pacific region to defend and advance the rights of colonized and indigenous peoples. “Our work has documented impacts to fisheries and traditional customs in coastal communities in Papua New Guinea, Tonga and elsewhere, and the disconcerting absence of true and meaningful consultation with affected groups.”

Other acknowledged impacts of deep sea mining include contamination of the water column and fisheries by tailings and heavy metals, species extinction, coral reef acidification, carbon emissions from onshore mineral processing, and increased risk of oil spills and surface accidents, among others.

Given the unique biodiversity, genetic, and biomedical properties of deep sea ecosystems, not to mention their potentially critical role in climate regulation, the so-called “common heritage” of the seabed extends far beyond the value of its minerals. “It would be tragically ironic if, in our rush to obtain minerals for use in green tech and renewable energies, we end up bulldozing the most important climate regulator of our planet,” says Hunter. “That possibility alone merits a cautious approach.”

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Taranaki iron sand seabed mining consent reduced Māori interest to lip service, court told

Ngati Ruanui iwi went to Parliament to voice its protest against the Trans-Tasman Resources’ plans to mine iron sand off the Taranaki coast. (File photo: Monique Ford)

Stuff | April 16 2018

Māori interests were not properly considered in the decision to allow iron sand seabed mining off Taranaki, a court has been told.

They went to the High Court at Wellington on Monday seeking to overturn environmental permission for the project.

A lawyer for Māori and fishing interests, Francis Cooke, QC, said as far as they were aware this was a world first for deep sea iron sand mining to be allowed to be undertaken.

Ngati Ruanui protested against Trans-Tasman Resources’ bid for marine consent to mine the seabed for iron sand. More than 6000 people signed the petition calling for a moratorium on seabed mining. (File photo: Monique Ford)

The permission, though, had split the Environmental Protection Authority decision making committee, and the outcome depended on the chairman’s vote.

Cooke said the majority decision of the committee had reduced to an “interpretive gloss” the strongly-worded direction to take into account the interests of Māori, and give effect to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Instead the interests of Māori could be said to be reduced to lip service, he said.

The highest concentration of suspended sediment would occur in coastal marine area offshore from the Ngāti Ruanui district, and fish were expected to avoid the area, with severe effect on seabed life within 2km of the operation, and moderate effects up to 15km of the mining area.

Cooke said an earlier decision for the same activity, the same parties, in the same area had been declined, on different evidence. One of the later committee’s alleged errors was not taking into account the first decision to decline the application.

Even the committee that gave consent described some of the effects as perhaps being catastrophic from Trans-Tasman Resources’ mining, Cooke said.

The company has allegedly spent about $80 million preparing for the mining.

The decision making committee said that when extraction finally ended the effects would be long term, but not permanent.

Cooke said the committee appeared to have applied a standard that allowed the environment to be harmed provided it ultimately recovered.

It had misunderstood, and misapplied the law, he said. The committee never identified the standard against which it judged the environmental effect.

At the start of Monday’s hearing some members of the public could not find seats in the crowded courtroom and had to listen to proceedings via a link to a court foyer.

In August, the authority’s committee granted Trans-Tasman Resources 35-year marine and discharge consents to annually mine up to 50 million tonnes of iron sand in the South Taranaki Bight.

A remote-controlled dredge will vacuum sand from the sea bed between depths of 20 metres and 42m, at a rate of 8000 tonnes an hour, to a processing ship. The dredging is earmarked in an area 22 kilometres to 36km off the coastline from Patea.

The decision committee said the company proposed extracting seabed material and processing it on a vessel. Approximately 10 per cent of the material would be processed into iron ore concentrate and the rest would be discharged to the seabed. It was expected much of the concentrate would be sent to China for steel making.

Taranaki iwi, Greenpeace, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, the Taranaki-Whanganui Conservation Board, Cloudy Bay Clams, the Federation of Commercial Fishermen, Southern Inshore Fisheries Management Company, Talleys Group, Te Ohu Kai Moana Trustee Ltd, and Trustees of Te Kaahui o Rauru, have appealed against the authority’s approval.

Trans-Tasman Resources is supporting the committee’s decision.

The hearing is expected to take about a week.

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