Tag Archives: Nautilus

Experimental Seabed Mining and the Controversial Solwara 1 Project in Papua New Guinea

The Deep Sea Mining Campaign is a collaboration of organizations and citizens from Papua New Guinea, Australia and Canada concerned with the likely impacts of deep sea mining on marine and coastal ecosystems and communities.

Peter Neill – Director, World Ocean Observatory | Huffington Post | July 11, 2017

It has been some time since we’ve reflected on the issue of deep sea mining — the search for minerals of all types on the ocean floor. We have seen already how marine resources are being over-exploited — over-fishing by international fisheries being the most egregious example, mining for sand for construction projects and the creation of artificial islands, the exploitation of coral reefs and certain marine species for medical innovations and the next cure for human diseases based on understanding and synthesis of how such organisms function.

The Deep Sea Mining Campaign, an organization based in Australia and Canada, has been following the saga of Solwara 1, proposed by Nautilus Inc. for offshore Papua New Guinea that continues to seek financing year after year since 2011. The project is basically a kind of corporate speculation premised on the lucrative idea of the availability of such minerals conceptually in the region — indeed the company has declined to conduct a preliminary economic study or environmental risk assessment, the shareholders essentially engaged in a long odds probability wager comparable to those who invested in marine salvagers attempts to find and excavate “pay-ships” lost at sea with purported vast cargos of silver and gold. The idea that they should be required to justify their endeavors to governments, third-world or otherwise, or to coastwise populations whose livelihood and lives depend on a healthy ocean from which they have harvested for centuries, is anathema.

Deep Sea Mining recently reported on the recent Nautilus Annual General Meeting where CEO Michael Johnston was asked:

· Is it true that without the normal economic and feasibility studies, the economic viability of Solwara 1 is unknown?

· Is it true that the risk to shareholders of losing their entire investment in Nautilus is high and the potential returns promoted by Nautilus are entirely speculative?

· Is this why Nautilus is struggling to obtain the investment to complete the construction of its vessel and equipment?

According to the release, Johnston declined to have his responses recorded and evaded providing clear answers. He did, however, affirm the description accuracy of the Solwara 1 project in the Annual Information Forms as a ‘high’ and ‘significant’ risk.

Local communities are also not interested in the Nautilus experiment. In recent weeks, two large forums against the Solwara 1 deep sea mining project in the Bismarck Sea have been held in New Ireland and East New Britain provinces of Papua New Guinea. Supported by the Catholic Bishops and Caritas Papua New Guinea , both forums called for the halt of the Solwara 1 project and a complete ban on seabed mining in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific. Here are some comments from those meetings:

Patrick Kitaun, Caritas PNG Coordinator:

“The Bismarck Sea is not a Laboratory for the world to experiment with seabed mining. Our ocean is our life! We get all our basics from the ocean so we need to protect it. We will not allow experimental seabed mining in Papua New Guinea. It must be stopped and banned for good.”

Jonathan Mesulam of the Alliance of Solwara Warriors:

“Nautilus, we are not guinea pigs for your mining experiment! We in the Pacific are custodians of the world’s largest ocean. These oceans are important to us as sources of food and livelihoods. They are vital for our culture and our very identity. In New Ireland Province, we are only 25 km away from the Solwara 1 site. It is right in the middle of our traditional fishing grounds. We will stand up for our rights!”

Vicar General, Father Vincent Takin of the Diocese of Kavieng:

“In order, for any development to take place, the people must be the object of development and not subject to it. The people have not been fully informed about the impacts of Solwara 1 on the social, cultural, physical and spiritual aspects of their lives. Therefore they cannot give their consent.”

Nautilus Inc. does not appear to be major international energy company with the assets available to force this project forward as others might. The opposition is well organized and vocal with arguments and expectations that the company cannot overcome. We hope. As with offshore oil exploration alongshore and it the deep ocean, this project is isolated in an opposing political context and shifting market. It is not for this time, for these people in these places, who have no concern for the loss of the `stranded assets of invisible gamblers in the face of the gain of conserving and sustaining their ocean resources for local benefit and the future.

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Can deep-sea mining avoid the environmental mistakes of mining on land?

Ambitious research aims to limit environmental damage on the sea floor – but some scientists fear mining this pitch black world will do more harm than good

Carol J Clouse | The Guardian | 28 June 2017 

Each of the three mining machines outweighs the 200-ton blue whale – the largest animal the world has ever known – and they look fearsome, especially the bulk-cutter designed to grind up the ocean floor with its enormous roller, covered in spikes.

If all goes as planned, come 2019 these giant remote-controlled robots will steamroll across the bottom of the Bismarck Sea off the coast of Papua New Guinea, chewing it up in pursuit of rich copper and gold reserves for a Canadian company called Nautilus Minerals. Nautilus chief executive Michael Johnston is anxious to demonstrate something besides making handsome profits. He also wants to show that his company has designed the mining expedition to have a small environmental footprint, especially when compared to the land-based counterpart.

“People have a view of mining, and they think we’re going to transport that view into the ocean, and it’s going to be ugly,” says Johnston, a soft-spoken New Zealand native and a 30-year veteran of mining.

“It’s important to all of us, especially those of us who’ve worked in mining for a number of years, to show people that you can do it better. I think a lot of people will be surprised,” says Johnson, 54, who joined Nautilus in 2006.

Johnston will have a lot to prove. The project, Solwara-1, will be the first ever attempt to extract minerals from the deep sea, and with the world watching closely.

Deep sea mining presents an ethical conundrum and an opportunity to avoid the costly environmental and social mistakes of land-based mining. That has prompted a group of policymakers, businesses and academic researchers to design rules that they hope will minimize environmental harm. They have proposed ideas that range from setting aside no-mining zones within a region rich in minerals to using technology that will reduce the extent of sediment plumes during dredging.

“We have the opportunity from the very beginning to understand the science, to understand the impact and to understand how to ameliorate the impacts,” says Dr James Hein, a senior scientist with the US Geological Survey. “This will really be the first time we can approach it from step one.”

But whether any of those ideas will work as designed to reduce environmental impact won’t be known until the machines are put to work. Some of Nautilus’s proposals, such as relocating some of the wildlife temporary to another location during mineral extraction – and recolonizing the spot afterward – attract strong skepticism.

“Nautilus’s claims that they can simply relocate parts of the site’s ecosystem elsewhere don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny, and the effectiveness of any measures to reduce other impacts will be difficult, if not impossible, to verify independently,” says Dr David Santillo, senior scientist at Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter in the UK.

Earth’s last mining frontier

The deep ocean plays a critical role in the Earth’s biosphere – it regulates global temperatures, stores carbon and provides habitat for a huge array of creatures. Scientists and environmental advocates fear that mining this pitch black, frigid world will not only kill any marine life that gets in the way of the machines but could potentially devastate far wider areas by stirring up plumes of sediment and introducing chemical, noise and light pollution.

Their worries underpin a sentiment that deep-sea mining appears inevitable. Demand for minerals to make virtually everything we use, including the phones and computers that run our lives, will only increase. Even technology that promises to cut our oil addiction and reduce emissions requires a reliable supply of raw materials, from tellurium for solar panels to lithium for electric vehicle batteries.

The vast treasure of untouched resources on the ocean floor – copper, zinc, cobalt, manganese, titanium and other minerals – has tantalized mining companies around the globe.

The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) is a particularly a coveted mining area that’s roughly the size of the continental US and lies between Mexico and Hawaii. It contains potato-sized nodules of manganese, cobalt, nickel, copper and molybdenum worth roughly $25.2tn, according to Hein’s calculations. Not all of this amount would be economically recoverable, Hein says, but even 30% would equal $7.56tn.

Moreover, these minerals exist at much higher grades than on land, where supplies that are easily accessible have mostly been depleted and mining companies are blowing the tops off mountains, cutting down wider expanses of forests and digging ever-bigger holes to extract from harder-to-reach deposits.

Mining copper in the Andes, which produces about 40% of the world’s supply, would require the removal of 50 tons of barren rock to get to a 20 million ton ore deposit with 0.5% copper in it, Hein says. In a marine environment, you can find a 7% copper deposit sitting right on the seafloor.

Of the 28 exploratory contracts signed with the International Seabed Authority, which regulates undersea mining in international waters, 16 are for mining in the CCZ. The US hasn’t ratified the treaty and joined the ISA. US aerospace and defense firm Lockheed Martin has obtained two exploratory contracts through its British subsidiary UK Seabed Resources.

Deep-sea mining is an expensive undertaking. Nautilus has encountered delays for its roughly $480m project and still needs to raise $150m to $250m to move ahead.

Around the world, extensive work is now going into mapping ocean floor ecosystems and researching ways to mitigate the environmental impact of deep-sea mining. In the US, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has done exploratory and mapping work off the coast of Hawaii, along with projects by university researchers.

The European Union has contributed millions of dollars to organizations such as MIDAS (Managing Impacts of Deep-Sea Resource Exploitation), and Blue Mining, an international consortium of 19 industry and research organizations.

A UK-funded expedition conducted the first ever controlled deep-sea sediment plume experiment in the Atlantic last year, about 300 miles from the Canary Islands. Sediment plumes are big dust clouds kicked up by mineral extraction, and scientists worry that the plumes could travel great distances, choking sea life along the way.

“There’s a lot more research to be done on sediment plumes,” says Dr Bramley Murton, who led the expedition and heads the marine mineral research at the UK’s National Oceanography Center. “But we got some data and, at the moment, the initial indication is that we can’t see the plume from a kilometer, or roughly 0.6 miles, away.”

That’s an encouraging result, because scientists previously suspected that sediment plumes would travel much further.

Another way to minimize impact is to aside protected areas within mining zones. Back in 2013, a team of scientists led by Dr Craig Smith, a professor of oceanography in University of Hawaii’s Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology, recommended the ISA to designate roughly a quarter of the CCZ as a protected area. The ISA accepted the team’s recommendations provisionally but will need to decide whether to include them in the final rules, which could take three to five years to finalize.

Improving the precision of mining robots will also help to reduce environmental disturbances. Companies with the technology that could solve the problem include the Seattle-based BluHaptics, which has developed software that enables a robot to recalibrate its aim and movement to improve precision by learning from each trip it makes to the seabed.

“We use machine learning software to identify and track objects in real time, with high resolution situational awareness, so it can see through sediment or oil spills,” says Don Pickering, BluHaptics’ CEO.

What will Nautilus do?

At the Solwara-1 site, 25km off the Papua New Guinea coast, Nautilus plans to launch its project from a ship 230 meters long and 40 meters wide, with roughly 130 employees on it. The company will go after minerals born 1,000–3,000 meters deep in volcanically active zones, around vents that spurt super hot, acidic water containing metals dissolved from the earth’s crust. The active vents are populated by numerous species, including tubeworms, clams, snails, shrimp, crabs and many species that are not yet known.

The three Nautilus robots, designed by UK-based SMD, will be lowered into the water, break up the rocks and collect them to be piped back to the vessel.

The ore will then be transported by smaller boats to China and sold to the Tongling Nonferrous Metals Group Holding Co. The ship plans to remain at the first project site for roughly three years, bringing up 2.5 million metric tons of ore containing metals worth roughly $1.5bn, give or take shifts in commodity prices.

To address sediment plumes, SMD designed the robots to suck the plume into the slurry with the ore and pump it up into the vessel. “Our ultimate goal is to recover as much of the material as possible, not to blow it away,” Johnston says.

Using a steel riser and pump system designed by GE Oil & Gas, once the ore is dropped into the vessel, the icy water will be pumped back down to the sea floor so it doesn’t mix with the warmer surface water and potentially cause algae blooms and other environmental disturbances. To minimize the use of bright light, which could disrupt marine life in the pitch black world, Nautilus will use sonar and digital cameras to create 3D maps to guide its extraction with the remotely operated robots.

“These populations grow fast and they reproduce a lot, so in some sense one can argue that they might recover quickly. But the environmental issue is that these habitats are relatively rare on the sea floor, and they’re different from one site to the next because the animals have adapted to the fluid chemistries,” says Dr Cindy Lee Van Dover, director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory in North Carolina and a member of the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative, an international group of scientists, lawyers and advocates that makes environmental recommendations to the ISA.

“We aren’t talking about stopping mining, just thinking about how to do it well. We can map these environments to show where the highest density of animals is and avoid those high-density places. That’s a very rational approach,” says Van Dover. “I’m reasonably optimistic that we can come up with progressive environmental regulations.”

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Nautilus says mine will not be in breach of law

Post Courier | June 28, 2017

Canadian miner, NAUTILUS Minerals, asserts the world’s first deep sea mine to be developed in Papua New Guinea, says it will not be in breach of any international laws.

The company was responding to recent reports published by the Catholic Professionals Society, which had claimed there would be breach to the freedom of navigation by international vessels, if the project gets off the ground.

The Solwara-1 project, will be developed in the waters between New Ireland and East New Britain provinces.

In a statement sent to the Post-Courier yesterday, the Canadian miner said: “Nautilus would like to clarify that its operations will not be in breach of international laws.”

“While there will be an exclusion zone around its operations, it is only 1.25-km in radius.”

“This was determined by placing a 500 meter buffer around all mining areas.”

“This buffer area was approved by the National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA) in September 2016, with the relevant information sent to the Australian Hydrographic Service for inclusion on the relevant charts,” the miner said.

Nautilus said the exclusion zone will ensure shipping does not interfere with mining operations, and will no way impede shipping passing through the St George passage (it doesn’t interfere with the Right of Passage as guaranteed by UNCLOS).

“This exclusion zone is no different to the exclusion zone around an oil and gas production platform, for which, there are thousands all around the world and they too are not in breach of international law.”

“Its position will be marked on maritime charts and will be noted by all vessels and vessel captains,” the firm further stated.

Questions were put to NMSA to comment but the state agency had yet to respond at the time this paper went to press.

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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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Proposed sea bed mining project in PNG in breach of International laws

NBC News via PNG Today | 24 June, 2017

The proposed sea bed mining project in Papua New Guinea will be in breach of International laws.

Catholic Professionals Society of PNG Executive and Environmental Lawyer Camillus Narokobi highlighted this recently, saying that there will be a breach to the freedom of navigation by international vessels if the project becomes a reality.

The project solwara 1, to be developed by Canadian Company, Nautilus Minerals in the New Ireland and East New Britain seas is set to begin in 2018.

“The area that is being targeted for sea bed mining falls within our jurisdiction, it is an area that falls under international law.

The passage between Rabaul and New Ireland is called St George Passage.

That is regarded as an International Strait, it is one of the seven international straits Papua New Guinea has, it is all within the Bismarck Archipelago.

And so both the New Ireland and East New Britain Provincial Governments have a right to say what has to be done or what should not be done.

And International rights include freedom of navigation, by ships and submarines that can come through those waters without giving prior notice.

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In the Depths of the Oceans, Human Activities Are Beginning to Take Their Toll

Edited Landsat 8 image of one of the deep blue holes in the Caribbean Sea. Once seen as too remote to harm, the deep sea is facing new pressures from mining, pollution, overfishing and more. (Photo: Stuart Rankin / Flickr)

Erik Vance| Truthout | June 13, 2017

Imagine sinking into the deepest parts of the Central Pacific Ocean, somewhere between Mexico and Hawaii. Watch as the water turns from clear to blue to dark blue to black. And then continue on for another 15,000 feet (4,600 meters) to the seafloor — roughly the distance from the peak of California’s Mount Whitney to the bottom of nearby Death Valley.

“As soon as you start to descend, all of the wave action and bouncing goes away and it’s like you’re just floating and then you sink really slowly and watch the light fade out through the windows and then you really are in another world,” says Erik Cordes, a researcher at Temple University and frequent visitor to the deep ocean.

Finally, you come to a stop 12,000 feet (3,700 meters) below the last bits of light from the surface. The water here is strangely viscous yet remarkably transparent, and the light from your flashlight extends for hundreds of yards. You are in the heart of the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, a region of the ocean seafloor roughly the size of the United States, populated by colorless invertebrates adapted in astounding ways to the sparse, crushing conditions found here.

And all around you — as far as the eye can’t see — are small, spherical rocks. Varying from microscopic to the size of a volleyball, they look like something stolen from the set of “Gremlins” or maybe “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

And they’re worth millions. Because inside these mysterious little eggs are untouched stores of copper, titanium, cobalt and especially manganese — crucial for making anything from the steel in your car’s frame to the circuitry that tells you how much gas is left in it. Some metals exist in larger quantities here than on all the continents of the world — and you had better believe they have caught the eye of mining companies.

The deep ocean, which in some places extends farther below Earth’s surface than Mt. Everest stands above, is facing threats from humans despite its remoteness.

It’s hard to draw a line exactly where the deep ocean starts. Starting at about 650 feet (200 meters), there’s not enough light to support photosynthesis, and at around 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) there’s no light at all. From there to the deepest spot, at the bottom of the 36,000-foot-deep (11,000-meter-deep) Mariana Trench between Japan and Papua New Guinea (deep enough to hold Mount Everest with New Hampshire’s Mount Washington stuck on top of it) is loosely defined as the “deep sea.”

However it’s defined, the deep sea today is a place of change. Human activities already are affecting it — and are poised, as these mineral stores suggest — to radically affect it even more in the decades to come. Attention we pay and decisions we make now could make all the difference in its fate.

Mining the Depths

The mineral riches of this deep ocean are vast and nearly untouched for now. But that’s changing as new technologies are allowing humans to access ever-deeper parts of the seafloor.

Current mining strategies break down along two rough categories. First is nodule mining — gathering up those bizarre seafloor billiard balls that have slowly collected minerals over the centuries as they trickled down like rain from above or seeped up from below and congregated around some central particle like rock candy around a string. There is no industry standard for sweeping up nodules so far below the surface — about 4,000 to 6,000 meters (13,000 to 20,000 feet) — though companies have proposed ideas as varied as deepwater vacuum cleaners and massive trawlers dragging across the seafloor. One 1985 study estimated 550 billion metric tons (610 billion tons) of nodules in the sea.

The second form of mining is targeted around sulfur vents and other types of seeps. These operations would be in shallower water — 4,000 to 12,000 feet (1,200 to 3,700 meters) — and look more like traditional mining operations scraping sulfur, phosphorus or precious metals from the sides of underwater ridges.

So far, all of these projects are theoretical. Most of the permits currently granted for deep-sea mining are for nodules, but the first ones to actually break ground are likely to be around ocean vents. Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian company working off the coast of Papua New Guinea, has begun implementing a project to mine gold and copper at a ridge about 5,000 feet (2,000 meters) below the surface and in April began receiving equipment.

Company executives have pointed out that they have passed environmental impact reviews and that their project is friendlier to the Earth than other mining operations because the ore is so rich they can get more of it by disturbing less of the soil. But scientists point out that much remains unknown about what deep-water strip mining will do to the environment. In the case of ocean vents, there are some animals that may live only in that spot, and a single mine could wipe out entire species. In addition, both styles of mining would kick up potentially toxic plumes of ultra-fine sand that could travel hundreds of miles through a part of the ocean that has remained undisturbed for thousands of years.

“They’re going into new environments with a lot of environmental impacts,” says Lisa Levin, an expert in the deep sea at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. “We are going to lose stuff before we ever discover it.”

Climate Change and the Deep Ocean

Because life in the deep ocean is more sensitive to change than in the shallows, the smallest shift in pH, oxygen or temperature can have huge effects. Thus, one of the most serious concerns about the deep ocean is climate change.

According to Andrew Thurber, an assistant professor at Oregon State University, a quarter to a third of the CO2 humans have released has gone to the deep ocean. Some of it gets absorbed into the water itself or turns to particulate, thus lowering the pH and oxygen levels, and some is buried and turned to stone, where it effectively neutralized and stored for millions of years.

A quarter to a third of the CO2 humans have released has gone to the deep ocean.Ironically, the deep ocean is one of the greatest mitigators of climate change as well, since it absorbs a massive portion of the Earth’s heat and CO2. In fact, one recent study showed that the ocean is absorbing phenomenally more heat now than ever before — about the same amount between 1997 and 2015 as it had in the previous 132 years. As a result, scientists are already seeing incremental temperature rise in the deep sea. Though less than at the surface, changes down there tend to represent more permanent ocean shifts.

Trickle Down Effects

Then there is chemical pollution. While mining the deep sea might be new, polluting it is not. Recent studies have found toxic terrestrial chemicals like PCBs and PBDEs in the tissues of animals living in the deepest places on Earth. In fact, where once scientists assumed the deep ocean was rather isolated from the surface, new studies have shown that the two are closely connected and that material can pass quickly into the depths.

The most spectacular example of this was the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico. It was assumed at the time that much of the millions of barrels of oil released by the faulty offshore drilling rig would float; they did not. It was assumed that the dispersant would neutralize the oil; in fact it was more toxic to deep sea corals than the oil itself.

“The probability of an accident goes up with depth,” and thus the potential for harming ocean life, Cordes says of deep-sea operations. “The deeper you go, the more stable the environment is; the more stable it is, the less those organisms can deal with changes.”

Cordes studies all sorts of pollution effects beyond the reach of sunlight. He and colleagues published pioneering research looking at the first evidence of acidification in the deep ocean in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Norway.

He says it’s easy to think of the deep sea as some kind of wasteland, while in fact it’s brimming with life.

“People don’t realize that there are massive coral reefs all over the Gulf of Mexico, there’s corals right off shore in California, there’s corals up in New England,” he says.

To overload this system or tinker with it at all is to play with fire.

“If we put something in the deep ocean, we pretty much can’t clean it up,” Thurber says.

And we can’t depend on the animals down there to adapt and clean up after us as they often do at the surface. Cordes says microbes at the surface can double their numbers in 12 hours; in the deep ocean it takes half a year. Because the generation time is so much slower, Thurber says, it takes decades for carbon-munching deep water microbes to battle, say, higher methane levels than the days or weeks it would take critters at the surface. Thus, our decisions around greenhouse gas emissions at the surface have now affected every ecosystem on Earth.

Permanent Decline

And it’s not just the microbes that grow slowly — fish in the deep ocean also take their time. As a result, fishing is another threat to the deep ocean. With most normal, surface fishing practices, it’s possible to manage a population such that what you take out is the same as what the population can replenish. But because fish found far from the surface grow slowly, some scientists have gone so far as to say that deep sea fishing is more analogous to mining than to fishing.

The classic case of this is the common slimehead. The slimehead is a delicious, bulky, dark red fish found from 180 to 1,500 meters (590 to 4,920 feet) below the surface in many of the world’s oceans. In the late 1970s, concerned that cod was on a permanent decline, seafood marketers in New Zealand began pushing slimehead under the more palatable name, orange roughy, because it turns orange after death.

Why this seemed like a good idea is a mystery. Slimehead spawn only 4 percent of the number of eggs as cod and take 20 to 30 years to reach maturity (rather than about two for cod). Within a couple decades the Australian government started reducing allowable harvest and then closing fisheries altogether as they tried to figure out catch limits that wouldn’t decimate the creature.

Some scientists now say there is no such number. One team estimated The New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries in 2009 estimated that a single 40-square-mile (100-square-kilometer) deep ocean fishery in the Pacific can only sustainably produce about 200 kilograms (400 pounds) of product per year. That’s about 57 adult slimehead. But that particular fishery produces 8,000 metric tons (9,000 tons) of slimehead per year. A similar story is playing out in other slimehead fisheries across the world, as well as other deepwater creatures like grenadiers, sharks and toothfish (otherwise known as Chilean seabass).

Direct Connection

In many ways, the deep sea truly is a new world waiting to be explored. But in our rush to exploit that new world, unless we think carefully about the impacts, we may find ourselves harming it before we even understand it — with implications for ourselves.

“[The deep oceans] are supporting these fish that we are depending on for food, they’re helping to recycle nutrients that come back to shallow waters, fuel the productivity of the ocean, produce half of the oxygen we breathe,” says Cordes. “We are directly connected to them.”

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Pacific Spotlights Sea Bed Mining at UN Ocean Conference

PIANGO | SCOOP | 9 June 2017

Activists and representatives from prominent Pacific Island organisations, led by the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (PIANGO), are taking part in a high-profile side event at the United Nations (UN) Oceans Conference at UN Headquarters in New York today. PIANGO is the Pacific Organising Partner for the UN NGO Major Group at the Oceans Conference.

The panel discussion, aptly themed “Voices from the Blue Frontier,” focused on a more sustainable approach to the “Blue Economy” and shared community experiences from the world’s first experimental deep sea mining project “Solwara One” in Papua New Guinea (PNG), highlighting environmental threats and rights violations of indigenous resource owners and local communities through deep sea mining.

The panel is featuring prominent speakers such as the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF), Francois Martel; Executive Director of PIANGO, Emele Duituturaga; Human Rights Attorney, Julian Aguon; Sarah Thomas nededog, PNG Catholic Cardinal John Ribat and Fair Oceans Expert, Kai Kaschinski.

The side event is designed to provide a platform for engagement and knowledge sharing on the underlying science of seabed mining and to highlight the need for strong governance measures to ensure that appropriate social and environmental safeguards are in place to protect against projected adverse effects of seabed mining in the Pacific Ocean.

“The United Nations Oceans Conference provides a further opportunity for multi-stakeholder participation and partnership building between governments, the private sector and civil society. This event is a demonstration of this inclusive approach and in particular, amplifies the voices of Pacific people, who have the greatest stake in the outcomes of the Oceans Conference,” Emele Duituturaga, Executive Director of PIANGO explained.

“As Small Island Developing States, Pacific Island countries are particularly affected by these ocean developments. Our people rely largely on the ocean and marine resources for their livelihoods, while environmental pollution of oceans and climate change increasingly threaten existing economies.

“For many years, organisations of small-scale fishermen around the world have been fighting against ocean grabbing and the privatisation of fisheries resources. Deep sea mining is an example of such growth-oriented strategies and the unsustainable utilisation of marine resources. It disregards the rights of local communities and their livelihoods, and satisfies the resource needs of industrialised countries and emerging economies,” Ms Duituturaga said.

“Deep sea mining is not a strategy for sustainable development of Pacific Island countries. Deep sea mining and the negative impacts of climate change are based on the same failed model of development. Both threaten the health of the marine environment that is of such vital importance for Pacific Small Island Developing States. We have repeatedly reiterated that we need to rethink prevailing development models and approaches and reshape the Pacific we want.”

The Ocean Conference will result in a Call for Action that has been agreed to by countries, and which will be formally adopted at the conclusion of the Conference. Additional outcomes include the results of seven partnership dialogues that will focus on solutions, and the voluntary commitments to action.

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Filed under Environmental impact, Human rights, Pacific region, Papua New Guinea