Deep-sea mining would be an environmental disaster, so we need a global moratorium to halt it in its tracks. Here’s how we go about getting one, says Helen Scales
21 July 2021
FIFTY years ago, people started dreaming of mining the deep seabed. Since then, those dreams have turned into a dystopian nightmare as scientists have found diverse, interconnected ecosystems at the bottom of the ocean and realised that mining them risks upsetting the health and functioning of our planet.
We have yet to start deep-sea mining, so this dystopia is just one version of the future, but it is one that may soon get the green light. Countries such as the UK, France, Belgium, Jamaica, Russia, China and Japan all have their sights set on the metals inside coal-sized nodules scattered across a vast abyssal plain, called the Clarion Clipperton Zone, 5000 metres underwater in the Pacific Ocean.
But turbocharging things is the Pacific island state of Nauru, which has used a controversial provision in international law to declare that its seabed-mining contractor, a subsidiary of Canadian-owned The Metals Company, intends to apply for a mining permit. The vague provision means that in two years’ time the International Seabed Authority shall “provisionally approve” Nauru’s nodule mine, which would operate according to the environmental regulations in place by then – which could be none. These are currently being discussed and are nowhere near ready.
If seabed mining were to go ahead, it could unleash an environmental disaster. Nodule mines could wipe out unique species and populations. Sediment plumes could choke animals, including those living far from the mines. Mining wastewater could pollute deep open waters. From tardigrades to tuna, octopuses, corals and whale sharks, nodule mining could harm a huge array of ocean life.
Nauru’s mine could be quickly followed by dozens more run by other countries and corporations, impacting thousands of square kilometres of seabed every year for decades. What’s more, it could pave the way for mining giant underwater mountains and hydrothermal vents, which are home to their own astonishing and little-known ecosystems.
Besides the immediate destruction, deep-sea mining could have far wider impacts, disrupting climate regulation, nutrient cycling and long-term storage of carbon in the ocean. And if pending environmental catastrophe isn’t alarming enough, mining could damage ecosystems that contain understudied chemicals with huge potential for new medicines.
However, deep-sea mining isn’t inevitable. That is why I have joined hundreds of other scientists and policy experts in calling for a global moratorium. Our Deep-Sea Mining Science Statement outlines a case for a pause on mining until we understand what the full impacts would be, and is open for additional signatures from anyone who wishes to show their support.
Achieving such a move before the two-year period is up will be challenging, but we are optimistic it can happen. A promising avenue looks to be through the UN General Assembly, which has precedent. Its non-binding resolution on high seas drift netting led to a moratorium on this fishing technique, which kills huge numbers of dolphins, whales, sea turtles and seabirds. An equivalent UN resolution for a seabed-mining moratorium could also encompass a wider mining strategy to responsibly meet the demand for minerals needed by the rise in green technologies.
Momentum for a moratorium is growing, with support from civil society, corporations, the fishing sector and financial institutions. In June, the European Parliament strengthened its backing for a moratorium and called on the European Commission and EU member states to join it. Numerous bilateral conversations are already happening.
We must take this step to add the deep seabed to the short list of relatively untouched regions on Earth, alongside Antarctica, that are too important and too fragile to open up and exploit. And we must do so soon.
Helen Scales is a marine biologist and author of The Brilliant Abyss: True tales of exploring the deep sea
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