Tag Archives: ISA

The environmental costs of deep-sea mining

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)

Countries must determine if mining the ocean can be done without harm to the environment

Matthew GianniDuncan Currie | china dialogue | 26 July 2018

There is growing interest in opening up the deep-sea to industrial mining for copper, nickel, cobalt, gold, rare earths and other metals. But at what cost?

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is meeting this week to discuss a strategic plan for the development and regulation of mining in the deep ocean beyond national waters.

The ISA was established in 1994 under the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is responsible for deciding whether, how and under what conditions, mining could be permitted in the international area of the seabed, an area equal to about a third of the earth’s surface.

The ISA has already issued 29 contracts to companies and state agencies from China, Korea, Japan, UK, Germany, Belgium, France, Russia, Brazil, India, Poland and a number of South Pacific countries to explore for metals in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.

Biodiversity at risk

But the deep-sea is increasingly recognised as one of the largest reservoirs of biodiversity on the planet and critical to supporting planetary ecological systems.

This first World Ocean Assessment report, published by the UN in 2016, also concluded that deep-sea ecosystems are already stressed by climate change, pollutants, and other human activities. Even plastics are making their way into the deep ocean. A recent study found plastics in the stomachs of fish in depths of 11,000 metres – the very deepest parts of the ocean.

Several scientific papers published in the past year have concluded that if deep-sea mining is allowed then biodiversity loss is inevitable. This is because many deep ocean species are long-lived, and ecosystems will struggle to recover, or may never recover, from mining impacts.

Other studies have pointed to the uniqueness of deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems that harbour chemosynthetic life forms such as giant tubeworms. These recent discoveries have vastly broadened our understanding of how life has evolved on our planet.

The vents also form mineral deposits known as polymetallic sulfides. The ISA has issued exploration licenses for these, but if active vents are mined then the life that thrives in these rare ecosystems will be destroyed.

Weighing the risks

Given the role of the deep-sea and the vulnerability of species and ecosystems to long-term and potentially irreversible damage, it is important that we first understand the risks before deciding whether, and under what conditions, deep-sea mining could be permitted to occur.

This is the essence of a resolution adopted by the European Parliament in January of this year, which called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until the risks are fully understood.

The Parliament also called for greater transparency by the ISA so that it ensures “effective protection” of the marine environment. This, after all, is its obligation under the Convention on the Law of the Sea. The ISA is also charged with acting for the “benefit of mankind as a whole” as the global steward of the international seabed, referred to in international law as the “common heritage of mankind”.

The UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015, commit all countries to rethink their economies, their use of the earth’s natural resources, and the protection of our oceans and wider environments in the context of sustainable development.

SDG 14 commits all nations to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. We need to conserve the ocean and we need to be investing in reusable technologies, recycling, and better product design to ensure we make the best use of the resources we have.

SDG 14 also commits nations to protecting and restoring ocean ecosystems and enhancing their resilience to be able to better survive the harmful effects of climate change.

The Chinese government has repeatedly told the ISA that it needs to take time for careful consideration and scientific study, while other voices are clamouring for rapid action and adoption of regulations to allow deep-sea mining.

China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA) recently held a workshop in Qingdao to start development of a Regional Environmental Management Plan (REMP) for an area of the western Pacific where China, Russia, Japan and Korea have exploration claims for cobalt crust mining on seamounts. REMPs are essential environmental tools to assess the regional characteristics and environmental needs.

Countries must seriously weigh whether deep-sea mining is consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals and their obligations under international law. Is it worth the risk of significant biodiversity loss and the degradation of deep ocean ecosystems? This is a debate that should occur this week at the ISA and within the broader international community of nations as a whole. The future of our oceans is at stake.

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Oceans Face Ultimate Threat from Deep Sea Mining

New Website & Letter Signed By International Scientists & Organizations Urging for a Moratorium on Deep Sea Mining 

MiningWatch Canada | July 24 2018

Our international waters – known as the “common heritage of (human)kind” – are under a new, imminent, and most deadly threat from the deep sea mining industry. 

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN agency which has not received much public scrutiny until now, meets in Kingston, Jamaica this week to discuss how to open up the deep sea bed to mining. Scientists, academics, and non-governmental organizations unite in a joint letter to raise alarm over this ultimate threat to our oceans.

Nnimmo Bassey, Director, HOMEF foundation and Alternative Nobel Prize recipient stated:

“Oceans play a critical role in maintaining life on the planet. However, the ISA continues to ignore the profound lack of scientific understanding of the immediate and long-term ecological costs of digging up the sea floor. 

“It is evident that large private and state-owned conglomerates have succeeded in shifting the ISA’s regulatory discussions toward outcomes favourable to corporate-directed industrial development.”

“Our joint letter is a call from civil society globally to protect our common heritage.”

Renowned marine biologists, including Cindy Van Dover and colleagues, have recently pointed out that deep-sea mining would impact both the seabed and the water column, such that biodiversity loss would be both “unavoidable” and “likely to last forever on human timescales.”

“The world’s seas are already on the brink of catastrophe from overfishing, pollution, such as from plastics and chemicals, destruction of critical habitat such as mangroves and coral reefs, global warming and acidification” said Catherine Coumans of MiningWatch Canada.

“The oceans cannot survive wide scale destruction of the sea bed by the same irresponsible industry that mines on land.” 

The signers of the joint letter noted:

“This is not the time to move forward with an extractive regime; there are far too many uncertainties. International leadership at the ISA is required to prevent recklessly proceeding with deep-sea mining.”

The ISA has already issued numerous exploration contracts in international waters to mining interests supported by member states of the ISA. As these exploration contracts come to an end, the ISA is considering implementing a regime to allow extraction.

Raj Patel, Activist, New York Times best-selling author and Research Professor, University of Texas claimed:

“When the Law of the Sea was written and the idea of ‘common inheritance’ first framed, I’m certain that corporations weren’t intended to inherit the seabed. There’s little evidence that corporate stewardship is compatible with the continued, sustained health of these under-studied ecosystems.”

“The seabed is everyone’s common inheritance, and we need broad, transnational and formal public consultation to learn and then decide how best to ensure its survival for those who will inherit it from us.”

Rather than permitting deep sea mining the ISA must declare a moratorium on deep sea mining before irreparable damage is done to the health of the world’s oceans.

View and sign Letter | Download Letter

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Draft mining regulations insufficient to protect the deep sea – IUCN report

“Our current understanding of the deep sea does not allow us to effectively protect marine life from mining operations

“Stringent precautionary measures to protect the marine environment should be a core part of any mining regulations, yet these remain missing in action”

IUCN | 16 July 2018

Regulations under development at the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to manage deep-sea mining are insufficient to prevent irrevocable damage to marine ecosystems and a loss of unique species – many yet to be discovered, an IUCN report warns.

The report, Deep seabed mining: a rising environmental challenge, provides a comprehensive overview of deep-sea mining and its potential environmental impacts. The report was launched today, coinciding with the 24th session of the ISA, whose aim is to agree on a ‘mining code’ to regulate the exploitation of the deep seabed.

According to the report, an effective regulatory framework is needed to avoid lasting harm to the marine environment, based on high-quality environmental impact assessments and mitigation strategies. These, in turn, must be based on comprehensive baseline studies to improve the understanding of the deep sea, which remains understudied and poorly understood.

The mining code currently under development lacks sufficient knowledge of the deep sea and a thorough assessment of environmental impacts of mining operations that are necessary to ensure effective protection of deep-sea life, according to IUCN experts.

“We are operating in the dark,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme.

“Our current understanding of the deep sea does not allow us to effectively protect marine life from mining operations. And yet, exploration contracts are being granted even for those areas that host highly unique species. Exploitation of minerals using current technologies could potentially destroy the rich deep-sea life forever, benefitting only a few, and disregarding future generations.”

There is growing commercial interest in deep-sea mineral deposits as a result of projected rising demand for copper, aluminium, cobalt and other metals. These resources are used to produce high-tech applications, such as smartphones, and green technologies, such as electric storage batteries.

Though there is little empirical evidence of the impacts of deep-sea mining, the potential impacts are worrying. These include direct physical damage to marine habitats due to the scraping of the ocean floor by machines – similar to clearcutting a forest – and the stirring up of fine sediments on the seafloor that can smother animals and cloud the water. Additional impacts include toxic pollution due to leaks and spills, noise, vibrations and light pollution from mining equipment and surface vessels.

By May 2018, the ISA – which has the dual mandate of promoting the development of deep-sea minerals whilst ensuring that this development is not harmful to the environment – had issued 29 contracts for the exploration of the deep sea. Commercial mining in international waters is expected to begin no earlier than 2025. Exploratory mining in the national waters of Japan started in 2017, and commercial mining is predicted to occur in Papua New Guinea by 2020. 

“With regulations for commercial deep-sea mining currently under development, we are facing a unique window of opportunity to ensure that potential impacts of these operations are properly assessed, understood and publically discussed,” says Kristina Gjerde, IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme senior advisor on the high seas.

“Stringent precautionary measures to protect the marine environment should be a core part of any mining regulations, yet these remain missing in action. In addition to this, the ISA’s challenging and conflicting mandate will require improved oversight by the international community to ensure marine life is adequately protected.”

Deep-sea mining is the process of retrieving mineral deposits from the deep sea – the area of the ocean below 200 m. The area covers about 65% of the Earth’s surface and harbours a rich diversity of species – many unknown to science – which are uniquely adapted to harsh environmental conditions. It also includes unique geological features, including the Mariana Trench – the greatest depth registered in the ocean.

The 24th session of the ISA is taking place from 2 to 27 July in Kingston, Jamaica.

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A very deep trouble

Seabed mining

Ramaharitha Pusarla | The Hans India | 1 July 2018

Almost 44 years ago, on July 4, 1974, CIA launched a covert sea operation with an aim of stealing Russian submarine, K-129 a ballistic nuclear missile carrier, almost 2,500 km from north-west of Hawaii, six years ago. To divert the attention of Russian spies and give the operation a deliberate spin, CIA under the garb of harvesting rocks in the seabed launched an operation-Project Azorian.

Nature has been a source of incredible wealth. From times immemorial, mankind greedily plundered nature for material gains. Breaching yet another pristine frontier, countries are making plans to ransack deep blue seas. Termed as Deep-Sea Mining (DSM), employing advanced technology, at breath-taking pace nations are vying to harvest nodules and rocks that constitutes the seabed. DSM entails extraction of minerals located 400 to 6,000 metres below the sea level.

Outwardly, while the vessel was fitted with all the machinery needed for excavating the seabed, Hughes Glomar Explorer housed a monstrous capture vehicle with a giant set of claws to retrieve the submarine and keep it hidden. By July 30, away from the prying eyes of the world, Americans located the submarine. But the capture vehicle suffered a damage while lifting the submarine. The giant claw broke under immense strain midway and most of the submarine slipped back.

In the run-up to the operation, CIA sent scientists for conferences on ocean mining and roped in billionaire inventor, Howard Hughes, to build a vessel for scientific exploration. The great PR strategy of CIA stuck chord with the US universities, that mulled introducing specific courses on deep sea mining. Even UN jumped in and offered to provide a rules-based approach to determine rights to ocean minerals.

The team managed to recover only the front portion. Despite the difficulties and the huge costs involved in carrying out the project, American desperately wanted to steal the submarine for obvious military reasons. To get hold of Russian nuclear missiles and to penetrate their naval communications, unmindful of the consequences, CIA went ahead with this cost prohibitive exercise. 

When CIA broke the details of the project after a year, mining companies who made extensive plans of mining seas were crestfallen and the stocks tumbled. However, CIA’s success proved that with sophisticated engineering techniques and lavish funds, DSM can be possible. Ever since companies invested heavily in research expeditions to probe the seabed for minerals.  

For the first time, scientists abroad, Royal Naval Ship, HMS Challenger found that deep seabed contains huge mineral deposits. First dredging exercise revealed the presence of nodules rich in manganese, nickel and iron in the ocean beds of Indian and Pacific Ocean.  Soon scientists confirmed that a tonne of the seabed is 10 times richer in mineral content than mines on land. Independent investigations by different teams confirmed this fact who declared sea beds as treasure houses of minerals and Rare Earth Elements (REE). 

By 1960s, scientists floated the idea that oceans should be used for peaceful purposes and their mineral wealth should be shared equally by the humanity. While the issue of ocean mining hardly evinced any interest in countries then, extensive use of mobile phones, solar panels, batteries, wind vanes, electric cars and other gadgets increased demand for indispensable REE. 

Nations are now competing for the scarce REE’s in the earth’s core. Owing to the rapid scale of sophistication appetite for Lithium, Cobalt, Copper has surged to phenomenal levels. Pitched battles are witnessed between nations for the limited supply of Cobalt. Republic of Congo, which currently has 60 per cent of global resources has now become a den for corruption, human rights abuse. 

Responding to Amnesty International’s report that sought a solution for exploitative mining and alleged dominance of smuggling mafia in Congo, Michael Lodge, Chairman of ISA, International Seabed Authority called for a relook at deep sea mining. 

To streamline various activities related to it. Intergovernmental body, ISA, came into existence in 1994 with headquarters at Kingston. It formulates rules and regulations for mineral-related activities in the international seabed region, the area beyond the limits of the jurisdiction of individual countries. 

ISA, which has observer status to UN has divided the ocean bed into blocks and 29 exploration areas. Companies from 19 countries have purchased mineral prospecting licences for 15 years as of now. ISA proposed three types of mining – Polymetallic manganese nodules, Cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts and polymetallic sulphide mining at hydrothermal vents. 

For the first time, a venture Nautilus Minerals commenced its exploration in Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Fiji after negotiations with respective governments of the Bismarck Sea. While the mining hasn’t started yet, all the preparations for rock breaking are going at frenetic pace. The stretch identified in the seabed is covered by hydrothermal vents, which are shelters for vast communities of extremely rare marine life like shrimps, snails and tubeworms. 

Use of gargantuan machinery during mining is bound to damage the marine habitat of the region, poverty-stricken countries lured by the attraction of money have accepted the deal. Though the mining company has undermined the fears of residents whose lives and livelihoods are irretrievably linked with sea waters. Disturbed by the impact of the exploratory phase that led to sharp decline in sharks, citizens of Tonga, Papua New Guinea have launched protests and campaigns against DSM.

After Japan’s successful attempt to mine ore deposits in 2017, which included – Zinc, Copper, Gold and Lead off the coast of Okinawa close to hydrothermal vents, there is a global rush for DSM. Elucidating the impacts of such mad rush, a paper published in Harvard Environmental Law Review warned nations of the adverse impacts of DSM on the environment, lives of indigenous people and the biodiversity of marine habitat. 

Hydrothermal vents act as environmental sinks with microorganisms in the vicinity sequestering huge amounts of carbon and methane (Greenhouse Gases). Recently, researchers discovered over 300 animal species endemic to vents making each vent unique. They now hypothesize that perhaps life must have evolved from hydrothermal vents, which can thrive even higher temperatures of up to 113C. Destruction of the vents might lead to the release of sequestered methane triggering a doomsday climatic event. 

Latest scientific breakthroughs revealed that deep seas absorb the excess heat generated by Greenhouse Gases. Oceans have been instrumental in mitigating the climatic change impacts.

DSM, which involves the use of heavy machinery that would chip, scrap and break the rocks. All these events invariably disturb the seabed, generate large sediment plumes and discharge wastes into seas. 

Till now, mankind irreversibly damaged the oceans and seas through deep-sea oil and gas extraction, discharge of wastes including nuclear wastes, dumping plastics, leakage of oils from vessels, etc. Scientists claim unlike surfaces of Moon, Mars or Venus, which were meticulously mapped, the invaluable diversity of marine life is largely unknown. 

Mariners are just beginning to understand the climatic role of hydrothermal vents. These geographical formations hold a key to unravel the secrets of evolution and adaptation of life on earth. At this juncture, dishevelling the deep seabed for commercial purposes may be counterproductive and tragic.

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New deep sea mining venture to launch

International Mining | 10 April 2018

A historic ocean mineral resource expedition, using the Maersk Launcher, launches from San Diego on April 12 to further a mission to responsibly produce the world’s future metal supply from the deep-ocean floor. This is the first of five offshore campaigns that are part of a strategic alliance with Maersk, one of the world’s largest shipping groups.

DeepGreen’s subsidiary, Nauru Ocean Resources Inc (NORI), will be carrying out extensive scientific and resource surveys within a 75,000-km2 contract area of the Eastern Pacific’s abyssal plain, granted to NORI by the United Nations’ International Seabed Authority (ISA). DeepGreen and NORI are developing technology that will allow the responsible production of polymetallic nodules, which sit on the ocean surface, and contain metals in growing demand and critical to global social and economic growth.

The intention is that, when collected and brought to the surface using state-of-the-art technology, the polymetallic nodules — usually small enough to fit in the palm of your hand — will be processed for metals such as cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese. Those future metals are becoming increasingly harder and more difficult to find on land, but are in great demand for technologies such as electric cars, battery storage, wind turbines and many more digital technologies essential to a sustainable future.

“This voyage is a continuation of the work required in preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement that NORI aims to submit to the ISA, a necessary step to move the Exploration license to exploitation license, which will enable NORI to bring these essential metals for our future to the surface where they will be treated onshore using DeepGreen’s patented processing technology, which aims to produce zero waste,” said Gerard Barron, CEO of DeepGreen. “We believe these future metals can be produced responsibly, protecting ocean health, while avoiding the deforestation, pollution and child labor that too often are part of traditional mining.”

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Deep sea mining decisions: Approaching the point of no return

Sulfide chimneys coated with iron-based microbial mat at Urashima Vent. Deep sea hydrothermal vents like these are targeted for mining. Picture: NOAA / Flickr

Sebastian Losada and Pierre Terras* | The Vanuatu Independent |  March 28, 2018

OVER the last two weeks, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) has been in discussions in Jamaica. Its mission – to work towards the finalisation of exploitation regulations, a so-called mining code that will allow commercial deep sea mining operations to begin all around the world.

The coming two years are critical in the opening – or not – of this unnecessary new frontier of resource exploitation.  The deep sea covers around fifty per cent of the Earth’s oceans and a great share of that is in international waters. Hidden under thousands of metres of water, the vast majority of it hasn’t been explored, meaning deep seabed mining could wipe out species and ecosystems before we even know them.

The ISA regulates the sea floor outside nations’ jurisdiction. It has to decide what the rules are: how much money will go to developing countries and their communities, what kind of environmental controls there will be. And, right now, decisions that could impact the earth’s seabed forever are being made in Jamaica; ushered through under pressure from industry and mining advocates with a decided lack of transparency.

A rocky outcropping with a prowfish skate corals and seastars as viewed by a manned deep submersible at approximately 1000′ deep in the Bering Sea. Picture: Greenpeace / John Hocevar

Advocates of ocean exploitation, like US giant military company Lockheed Martin, argue that we need deep sea mining in order to meet ‘the growing global demand for precious metals’ and to support ‘economic growth’.

They also claim that deep sea mining is necessary to satisfy our endless thirst for technological and electronic innovation, conveniently ignoring many aspects of the problem.

“Are we going to continue to develop huge mines that destroy villages, alter rivers, pollute water courses, take thousands of years to restore, remove whole mountains? You don’t have any of that with deep seabed mining,” said ISA Secretary General, Michael Lodge, recently.

While it’s true that mining for essential and finite raw materials often endangers workers and leaves the Earth irreversibly scarred, the solution is not – and cannot be – to translate these mining impacts to other ecosystems that provide crucial services to humanity and our climate.  Doing so would not only result in potentially irreversible biodiversity losses, but would also send a completely wrong signal: that we do not need to improve efficiency and reduce resource use because there is plenty down there.

Why is it that the IT sector, and its current leaders such as Samsung and Apple, can show the ingenuity to develop technologies that allow us to do things we could only have dreamed of a decade ago, but do not put such ingenuity to the service of a truly sustainable economy within the boundaries of the planet?

Instead, in the race to gain market share, IT companies increasingly change the design of their products in a way that accelerates the replacement cycle, making them difficult to service, upgrade or repair and shortening their useful life.

Greenpeace protests outside the Palau de Congresos de Cataluña (Catalunya Palace of Congress) during the presentation of Samsung ahead of the Mobile World Congress to ask Samsung for a compromise to recycle the 4,2 million of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 devices that were defective.

Mining advocates also argue that we need the minerals to meet increased demand from the growth of renewable energy technologies and the electrification of transport.

But there is no evidence that a transition towards renewable energy necessitates mining in the deep ocean. On the contrary; a recent report by the the Institute for Sustainable Futures found that:

“Even with the projected very high demand growth rates under the most ambitious energy scenarios, the projected increase in cumulative demand – all within the range of known terrestrial resources – does not require deep-sea mining activity.”

Different types of seabed mining involve different extraction methods and technologies, but whatever the approach severe impacts can be expected. Sediment plumes, the potential release of toxic chemicals, habitat destruction, increased temperature and noise all threaten the deep sea’s precious and as yet untouched environment.

Researchers recently concluded that most mining-induced loss of biodiversity in the deep sea is likely to last forever on human timescales, given the very slow natural rates of recovery in affected ecosystems.

A dense field of whip coral (Viminella flagellum) found at 250 -300 meters in the Azores captured with the use of a specialised underwater camera. Picture: Greenpeace / Gavin Newman

Yet the ISA has recently rejected the establishment of an environmental committee to better include environmental considerations in its functioning, and key environmental information is not public. It’s Legal and Technical Commission meets mostly behind closed doors, and its composition is such that biological and ecological considerations are underrepresented.

Despite all the arguments against this unnecessary pillaging of planet’s seabed, so far the ISA has approved 28 exploration contracts in the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans – covering more than 1.4 million square kilometers, roughly four times the size of Germany – to companies like Lockheed Martin.

And in the meantime, the first commercial test case for the deep seabed mining industry is already planned to take place in the waters of Papua New Guinea. Canadian company Nautilus Minerals plans to extract mineral-rich sulfides, containing copper, zinc and gold, at depths between 1,500 and 2,000m. The mining operation, known as the Solwara project, is scheduled to begin early in 2019.

A strong alliance of NGOs made of over 20 communities in the Bismarck and Solomon Seas is fighting to stop the project. Arguing a lack of consultation, and drawing attention to the grave impacts that could be derived from the project, the local opposition is growing stronger while the company is facing potential financial troubles.

The European Union Parliament has recently agreed on a resolution on international oceans governance, which calls for a moratorium on seabed mining.

In an effort to push back against the plunder, almost 800,000 thousand people have called on the ISA and its member parties to agree to the moratorium.

While opposition is mounting, alternative economic models are gaining momentum and people are increasingly aware of what’s at stake, for the sake of the oceans, the planet and the people, it’s urgent we stand to prevent commercial deep sea mining, before it’s too late.

* Sebastian Losada is Oceans policy adviser for Greenpeace International, and Pierre Terras is an Oceans campaigner for Greenpeace International

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Experts Warn that Seabed Mining Will Lead to ‘Unavoidable’ Loss of Biodiversity

Tam Warner Minton/Flickr/CC-by-2.0

Daniel Oberhaus | Motherboard | June 27 2017

Seabed mining companies are going to wipe out species we don’t even know exist yet.

An international group of 15 marine scientists and legal scholars published a letter on Monday warning of the dire effects that the nascent seabed mining industry could have on bottom dwelling marine life.

The letter, published in Nature Geoscience, is the latest in a series of increasingly desperate pleas from marine scientists to pump the brakes on mining the seafloor until marine scientists are able to get a better idea of what the effects this industry will have on this woefully understudied area of the planet.

“Unlike on land, most of the biodiversity and ecosystem function in the deep sea is poorly understood,” Cindy Dover, a professor of biological oceanography at Duke University and one of the signatories to the letter, told me via email. “We have learned that the deep sea is as exquisitely diverse as any bit of shallow marine or terrestrial environment. What we don’t understand is how much we can degrade deep-sea ecosystems before we reach tipping points, where the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function affects the health of the ecosystem beyond levels that are acceptable to society.”

As such, Van Dover and the other signatories on the letter call for the International Seabed Authority, the UN-sanctioned regulatory body for the ocean’s floor, to recognize the risk posed by deep sea mining and communicate this risk to the public at large.

“We ask that biodiversity loss resulting from deep-sea mining be recognized and be part of the public discourse about mining,” Van Dover said. “The scientific community has been invited by the ISA to provide recommendations on responsible environmental practices for deep-sea mining. Our peer-reviewed letter responds to this invitation.”

Although the deep sea (defined as anything below a depth of about 650 feet) accounts for roughly two-thirds of the Earth’s surface, we know remarkably little about what goes on down there. Dozens of new species are routinely discovered during forays to the bottom of the ocean and the deep sea ecosystem isn’t well understood.

Nevertheless, the deep sea has become the site of a new gold rush in recent years. The discovery of a wealth of precious minerals such as nickel and cobalt, in addition to oil and potentially lifesaving molecules have incentivized seabed mining operations to begin exploratory missions to the bottom of the ocean to start staking claims.

To get an idea of how this industry is developing, the authors of the recent letter point out that in 2001 there were only six contracts for deep sea mining operations. By the end of 2017, however, there will be 27 deep sea mining contracts. Of these, 17 will be in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a region of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Central America. One of the proposed mining contracts alone covers 32,000 square miles, an area larger than the state of Maine.

Although some proponents of deep sea mining argue that the effects of this industry can be offset by taking more environmentally friendly measures elsewhere, such as building artificial reefs, the authors of the letter are calling BS.

“The argument that you can compensate for the loss of biological diversity in the deep sea with gains in diversity elsewhere is so ambiguous as to be scientifically meaningless,” Craig Smith, a professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii, said in a statement.

“This is like saving apple orchards to protect oranges,” Van Dover added.

For now, these contracts remain exploratory as the ISA struggles to establish a deep sea regulatory regime. But as the letter’s authors rightfully worry, it will be hard to establish effective seabed regulations since so little is known about the ocean floor.

“The ISA has begun working on regional environmental protection plans that include identifying networks of Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEI) within regions of interest to contractors,” Van Dover told me. “Mining and mining impacts would be excluded in these APEIs. Science-based recommendations for the design of these APEIs call for them to include representative habitats in the region.”

Until these regulations are in place, however, the authors of the letter call for the ISA to acknowledge that deep sea mining will certainly be harmful to deep ocean biodiversity. According to the authors of the letter, this damage will likely be irrevocable. Even more frightening is that we’d likely never know the full extent of the damage because marine scientists won’t have the opportunity to establish sufficient baseline measurements before the mining frenzy begins.

“I do not know if responsible seabed mining is possible, given knowledge gaps in our understanding of deep-sea biodiversity and function, and the possibility that the cost of good, science-based environmental management and monitoring may be too high at present relative to the value of the product,” Van Dover said. “There are ways to fill these knowledge gaps, but they require time and investment.”

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