Deep sea mining is a recipe for certain disaster


By Shannon Ray

A team of scientists investigating a large area of the Pacific Ocean known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone have found an astonishing 5,000 new species living on the ocean floor. The species they logged include previously undescribed varieties of urchins, starfish and sea cucumbers, as well as ‘gummy squirrels’ and other strange and delightful, transparent invertebrates. But the CCZ is under threat: it has been earmarked for deep-sea mining.

Deep-sea corals (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Deep-Sea Symphony: Exploring the Musicians Seamounts)

The recent discovery is proof of what marine scientists have been saying since mining the deep seas for rare minerals and metals was first proposed: we know so little about the deep sea––what biodiversity it might house, what carbon sequestration processes exists––that “mine first, investigate later” is a recipe for certain disaster.

Despite increasingly desperate calls for a moratorium on deep-sea mining by scientists, activist groups, celebrities, entire countries and even some corporations, the International Seabed Authority will start accepting applications from companies seeking mining permits next month. Deep-sea mining is set to press ahead not because impact assessments have deemed the activity safe––the deep sea is so inaccessible that we haven’t been able to carry these out at scale––but because of an arbitrary deadline set by the ISA that effectively says that deep sea mining should go ahead within two years of a party’s request to do it. According to this rule, procedures must be put in place to enable the party (in this case, the tiny country of Nauru) to do so, regardless of whether ecological surveys have been carried out, or whether conclusions about the risks of mining have been reached. This runs counter to the precautionary principle often deferred to in marine management: that scientific uncertainty should not deter us from taking reasonable measures to protect ocean ecosystems.

How might the release of metals and toxins, sediment plumes, wastewater and noise pollution involved in deep-sea mining affect creatures such as the gummy squirrel, whose value––and that of the countless other deep-sea species ­­yet to be discovered––we cannot possibly yet know? How might disruption of the seafloor and destruction of the ecosystems that rely on it compromise the ocean’s ability to store carbon? We urgently need answers to these questions before we decide to unleash the harms of mining on our oceans.

Gummy squirrel (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research)

But even if the undiscovered biodiversity at the bottom of the sea does not turn out to be beneficial to humans, it is still worthy of our respect and protection. Fish are, first and foremost, wildlife. They are not ‘marine resources’ or ‘stocks’, but sentient animals who we now know have unique personalities, impressive cognitive abilities, complex social practices, and the capacity to feel emotion and pain. Mining on land has resulted in the loss and degradation of terrestrial ecosystems, and we can be certain that expanding the extractive industry into the seas will have the same effects there, destroying these marine communities.

While some deep-sea mining companies have argued that shifting mining to the oceans will ease the pressures faced by poor communities in the Global South who are forced to mine in unsafe working conditions, we need to consider why there is a push for mining to be expanded in the first place. The energy transition away from fossil fuels will require vast quantities of raw materials for solar panels and batteries, we are told––so why aren’t we making every effort to limit energy usage and reduce material consumption? The fix for unsafe and unsustainable terrestrial mining is not to move it elsewhere, but to require less of it (for instance, by investing in public transport instead of encouraging everyone to own their own electric car). Yet even if mining companies have their way and are allowed to expand into our oceans, growth in energy demand and material usage will mean that deep-sea mining  merely adds to existing operations, rather than replacing them. The argument that deep-sea mining is somehow a solution to the ills of terrestrial mining cannot be made in good faith.

Nodules (ROV-Team, GEOMAR, CC BY 4.0)

We need a moratorium on deep-sea mining––and not just while we wait to economically value the deep sea’s ‘ecosystem services’ or ‘marine genetic resources’. We must refrain from mining the seas altogether and begin making efforts to scale back unnecessary production instead. “Blue growth”––the latest rallying point for corporations who wish to increase and expand industrial extraction into yet more wildernesses––is a dangerous campaign to plunder our oceans beyond repair, and the ISA must not give in to it.

It may be too late to stop the ISA from accepting the applications for deep-sea mining that will begin rolling in in the coming weeks, but there is still time to intervene before permits are granted and mining begins. The ISA must put an immediate halt to this latest destruction of one of the ocean’s only remaining refuges.

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Blue Planet Society is a global pressure group campaigning to protect the world’s ocean. By utilising effective activism, minimising the use of resources and applying the highest ethical standards, we believe our approach is the future of marine conservation advocacy.