Is deep sea mining inevitable?
The race is on to protect the world’s oceans and marine life from the irreversible devastation of deep sea mining – we take a look at what lies beneath with those working to protect it
Mining the deep sea to gather metals to stem the climate crisis would be like smoking to get rid of stress.Diva Amon
Mining companies are lining up to exploit the valuable minerals found at the bottom of the world’s oceans, a new ‘gold rush’ that’s likely to cause unprecedented destruction to marine life, ocean habitats, global fisheries and the planet. But with so much money to be made, is deep sea mining inevitable?
“It’s a wild experience,” says marine biologist Diva Amon, describing the experience of journeying far beneath the ocean surface. “You get into the submersible and know you’re going to a place that few, if any, have been before, and a place where, if something goes wrong, it’s likely no one will be able to help. You get hoisted over the side of the ship and, before you know it, you’re descending, watching the light disappear… “
While many look to the stars as the ‘next frontier’, more than 80 per cent of the world’s oceans remain unexplored, the creatures that live in them still a mystery. Technology has opened up previously impossible depths, from Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) that can travel around 10 kilometres beneath the surface to submersibles (or submarines). Originally from Trinidad, Amon has used submersibles to explore the Bahamas, the mid-Atlantic ridge, and the Caymen Trench, going down to maximum depths of 2.6 kilometres, working up to nine hours in close proximity with the other crew members.
The abundant life found in the deep oceans is a world away from the barren environment many people might imagine. “It’s an unfortunate idea that has stuck about the deep sea,” explains Amon, who’s on the Executive of the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative.
“It’s absolutely not lifeless. The deep sea is the largest ecosystem on the plant, 96 per cent of all habitable space on Earth, so it’s an absolutely enormous biodiversity reservoir. As you descend, you see deep sea life, from bioluminescent firework displays to ethereal lunar landscapes. There are hundreds of thousands of species in the deep sea, most of which haven’t yet been discovered. So many of them are unlike anything we’ve seen before – from glowing sharks to hairy white crabs that are able to farm bacteria on their body that they eat. It’s remarkable to know you’re among the first people to see a species, an ecosystem, a behaviour, and that happens nearly every single time we go down into the deep sea. But you’re not there for a joyride. There’s a lot at stake. You have to put aside the wonder and amazement and get the job done.”
As you descend, you see deep sea life, from bioluminescent firework displays to ethereal lunar landscapes.Diva Amon
From 2023, Amon will be exploring the deep seas on her home turf. Less than one per cent of Trinidad and Tobago’s deep ocean habitats have been explored. Amon and her team will be looking to find out exactly what’s down there, to inform management and conservation.
Understanding ‘what lies beneath’ is becoming increasingly important, as mining companies around the world are lining up to start extracting valuable minerals from deep ocean seabeds, a move that campaigners, including Amon, believe will be catastrophic for ocean species and habitats, and for global hopes of combatting climate change.
Mining companies have long been eyeing the money to be made from deep sea mining, but the debate over the future of the world’s oceans has now become a race against time. In June 2021, the Pacific island republic of Nauro triggered an obscure legal mechanism, known as the two-year rule, on behalf of Nauru Offshore Resources Inc (NORI), a subsidiary of mining giant The Metals Company. The two-year rule means industrial-scale strip-mining of vast seabed areas in international waters could begin as soon as July 2023.
The International Seabed Authority (ISA), set up in 1994 by the United Nations, now has less than a year left to establish complex regulations governing the deep sea mining industry. Made up of 167 Member States and the European Union, the ISA is mandated to regulate and control all mineral-related activities in international seabed area, and duty-bound to ensure the protection of marine environments. But if the ISA is unable to establish regulations in that timeframe, mining companies will be allowed to forge ahead under whatever rules or guidelines are in place at that time.
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Scientists, environmental groups, Indigenous communities, industry leaders and businesses agree that such a tight deadline doesn’t allow anywhere near enough time to conduct research to understand deep ocean environments or the damage deep sea mining would cause, warning of pollution, water contamination, massive sonic and motion disturbances, species extinctions, habitat destruction, harm to global fish populations, and a reduction of the oceans’ effectiveness in moderating the planet’s climate. More than 650 scientists and policy experts from over 400 countries have called for a pause on deep sea mining.
“No mining has happened yet,” explains Amon. “We’ve seen 31 exploration licences granted. Those licenses were granted before anyone knew what lived in those areas. In many cases, we still don’t know. We’re seeing planned mining areas in three of the world’s oceans, and they’re on enormous scales – some as large as 75,000 square kilometres, about the size of Sri Lanka. There’s no regulatory framework, and no framework for how to share the benefits from mining equitably. There’s a lot of science missing. We know there will be habitat loss and biodiversity loss, but what will the knock-on impacts be? We know the deep sea plays essential roles in climate regulation, in fisheries that billions of people rely on. There’s a huge risk in rushing forward.”
There’s a lot at stake. You have to put aside the wonder and amazement and get the job done.Diva Amon
Mining companies, though, are hoping to start work as soon as possible. Alongside profits, they’re hyping deep sea minerals – copper, cobalt, nickel and manganese – as essential for a transition to a greener planet, useful from car batteries to wind turbines. “The process being discussed for mining is absolutely not green,” argues Amon. “It will result in biodiversity loss and habitat loss on a scale that has never been seen before in the ocean. This damage will be irreversible. Mining the deep sea to gather metals to stem the climate crisis would be like smoking to get rid of stress.”
While mining companies want to speed ahead with the underseas ‘gold rush’, there are growing calls for a pause or a total ban on deep sea mining. The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, an alliance of over 100 international organizations, including Greenpeace, Oceana, SharkLife, and Save Our Seas, has called on the ISA to agree to a global deep sea mining moratorium, with talks in Jamaica earlier this year, and more planned over the coming 12 months, as the Nauro-inflicted deadline looms.
Most of the commercial interest is focused on strip-mining in the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ)’s deep abyssal plains 4,000-6,000 metres below the surface in the eastern Pacific ocean, between Mexico and Hawaii. 17 of the ISA’s 31 exploration contracts are for nodules in this region. The ISA has issued two additional contracts for exploration in the central Indian Ocean and the north-west Pacific.
“The three main types of deep-sea mining under consideration by the ISA – strip mining the deep-sea floor for nodules, mining hydrothermal vent deposits (for gold, silver, copper and zinc), and removing ‘ferro-manganese cobalt crusts’ from the flanks of underwater mountains – would be devastating to marine life, and unnecessary,” says Matthew Gianni, Co-Founder and Policy Advisor for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.
“Each mining operation would involve strip-mining an area of some 10,000-12,000 square kilometres of seabed over the course of a 30-year mining license. A single mining license will likely generate sediment plumes harmful to marine life across tens of thousands of square kilometres of the seabed and throughout the water. The discharge of sediment and wastewater from the collector ships could travel hundreds of kilometres or more across the ocean, potentially impacting fish, migratory species such as whales and sea turtles, and deep-sea species. Biodiversity loss would be inevitable and permanent on human timescales if mining in the deep sea is permitted.”
The areas being debated are far out in international waters, rather than falling under an individual country’s jurisdiction. “No one nation owns the seafloor in the international seabed area,” explains Gianni. “Under international law, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the seafloor beyond the limits of national jurisdiction is designated as the ‘common heritage of (hu)mankind’ It belongs to all of us, and the ISA is obligated to act on behalf of and ‘for the benefit of humankind as a whole’.”
“We want to see a moratorium on adopting the mining regulations and issuing any deep sea mining licenses until we have a much better understanding of deep sea and open ocean ecosystems, their biodiversity, and the potential impacts of mining,” he adds. “We also want to see reform of the ISA, it’s voting structure and other problematic aspects of the organization, to make it much more democratic, transparent and accountable, to ensure it acts for the benefit of humankind as a whole and not for the benefit of a small group of corporate actors and investors looking to make money.”
Biodiversity loss would be inevitable and permanent on human timescales if mining in the deep sea is permitted.Matthew Gianni
At the UN Ocean Conference in Portugal in June 2022, Palau, Fiji and Samoa became the first countries formally calling for a global alliance to back a moratorium on deep sea mining. “This announcement is important because it begins what can become a political process towards organized action in the UN system, including the ISA,” explains Taholo Kami, a Pacific Ocean Advisor for the Waitt Institute and former Regional Director for the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Oceania office, based in Fiji, who was instrumental in the moratorium pledge.
“This political call raises the bar and immediately led to responses from France and other countries. Deep sea mining means continuing the exploitive relationships of the extraction of our resources with little benefit to those Island countries and substantial damage to the environment. In this climate-challenged planet, we need to ensure our last healthy ecosystems are given every opportunity to thrive.”
The Federated States of Micronesia joined the alliance in July. France, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Chile, Costa Rica, and Ecuador have added their calls opposing the start of deep sea mining. Kami hopes more will follow. “We need as many countries on board as possible to ensure there’s a moratorium and to demand significant investment in research of our deep sea,” he says. “We shouldn’t be making big decisions on mining a deep seabed that we have little knowledge about. Currently our leaders are informed by the mining companies with their bright portfolios but the emerging science continues to portray existing biodiversity and deep sea carbon sequestration as valuable services.”
Beyond a moratorium, Kami hopes to see broader global changes. “We need a strong 30 per cent Marine Protected Area (MPA) commitment implemented in Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and High Seas,” he suggests. “We need large spaces, like the tropical Pacific island region, to be managed and connected to allow ocean ecosystems to adapt to climate change. And we need to reconnect humanity to the ocean. We need to significantly improve education and research, and to run campaigns to connect families and children to the ocean, to restore relationships with nature and the ocean.”
We need to ensure our last healthy ecosystemsTaholo Kami, Waitt Institute
are given every opportunity to thrive.
Humanity’s track record isn’t good when it comes to putting the planet before profit. Despite a complete understanding of the harm it causes to wildlife, ecosystems, and the environment, the extraction of oil, gas and minerals continues, as does widespread deforestation for palm oil plantations and livestock. In the oceans, we’re already seeing the damage caused by global overfishing, by the depletion of sharks due to the shark fin trade, and the bleaching and dying out of corals due to warming waters.
At a time when global scientists are united in the need to protect and restore nature, for the sake of the planet, it seems a ridiculous move to start wrecking the oceans with strip-mining. But given the vast profits to be made by deep sea mining, is it inevitable that it will happen? “No, it is not inevitable,” argues Gianni. “Mining these international areas of the ocean can only occur if the member countries of the ISA decide to allow it to happen. The ISA’s decision-making structure is very undemocratic, but countries can change this. They can change the rules. There is no demonstrable societal need to open up a whole new frontier of the planet to industrial resource extraction on a scale that dwarfs anything we’ve done on land to date.”
There is still time, in the coming months of discussions between governments, industries, scientists and environmental groups, to put the health of the oceans, marine life and our planet ahead of mining profits. The backlash against deep sea mining is growing, with momentum building for a moratorium. “There’s a year for huge decisions to be made,” says Amon. “There are huge gains to be made, but those gains are for a small subsection of humankind. But we’ve seen a turnaround before. For example, the international whaling commission was put in place to manage whale stocks for whaling, but once that was proven unsustainable, we saw a pivot to managing whale stocks through the lens of protection, not exploitation.
“There is a real opportunity for humankind to not make the kind of mistakes that have been made already. Deep sea mining would be going into a part of the planet we don’t understand and irreversibly altering it. There’s so much at risk. The question is: can we learn from our past mistakes?”
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What’s so good about this?
The importance of the world’s oceans is hard to overstate. At a time when humanity needs to focus efforts on protecting biodiversity and natural habitats, it seems a ridiculous move to start mining the deep sea beds for minerals. This article highlights the work being done by people, organisations and countries around the world to protect, rather than exploit, the world’s deep seas, before the harm is done. To find out more or to support the campaigns to protect the world’s oceans, see:
Meet the writer
Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist who’s been travelling the world for 20 years reporting stories and photographing wildlife, people and places for international publications including The Guardian, BBC, The Sunday Times, New Internationalist, Wanderlust, British Journal of Photography and Digital Camera. He covers subjects ranging from wildlife and conservation to human trafficking. Graeme is also the founder of the award-winning international wildlife conservation initiative, newbig5.com. You can follow his work at graeme-green.com and on Instagram @graeme.green.