Decades of over-fishing, industrial pollution, plastic waste and threats to basic ecological stability posed by climate change all demonstrate how "humanity is collectively mismanaging the ocean to the brink of collapse," according to the World Wildlife Fund's Living Blue Planet Report. Now another threat is emerging: deep sea mining. New technology has made the exaction of copper, zinc, manganese, nickel, cobalt and gold from under the sea possible.
The world's first-ever commercial deep sea mining (DSM) project is due to start in under two years time - and environmentalists and scientists are worried.
"We currently have very poor understanding of deep sea ecosystems, few protected areas, and management regimes that are rudimentary at best," said marine conservation biologist Rick Steiner. "Thus, the potential for irreversible ecological damage due to DSM is high. We need a ten-year continuous time series of research before we will have even a vague understanding of the environmental impact."
The Solwara 1 deep sea mine, the joint venture between Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals and the Papua New Guina government, located 19 miles off Papua New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean, is the first project in the world to be granted a commercial DSM extraction license. Production is now expected to start in early 2018, and the company plans to mine deposits of copper, zinc and gold worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Nautilus Minerals claims mining the seabed will have less of an impact than terrestrial mining due to the smaller scale of its operation - with DSM, minerals are found in concentrated nodules associated with volcanic activity - and the fact that no roads or infrastructure would be required to gain access. However, independent science-based reports released in 2009, 2011 and 2012 detail deficiencies in the science and modelling used by Nautilus. The reports claim that DSM could cause irreversible ecological damage to sites that could contain hundreds of species previously unknown to science. It also says the mining activity would introduce light and noise pollution in pristine areas, and could produce sediment plumes introducing toxic metals into the food chain - harming tuna, dolphins and potentially humans. Deep Sea Mining Campaign, published a report in 2015 entitled Accountability Zero that was endorsed by economists, scientists and NGOs including Greenpeace Australia and Earthworks. The group analyzed the results of an environmental impact report conducted by the American consultancy firm Earth Economics, and commissioned by Nautilus, which compared the potential impacts of Solwara 1 to existing land-based copper mining. Accountability Zero claims the report failed to account for the unique social, cultural and economic values of oceans.
The number of companies seeking to mine in international waters has tripled in the last four years, and the US, UK, Russia, China, Japan, Brazil, Germany and South Korea all have exploration projects underway. Most of these are in the Pacific, while others are in the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Separate projects have also been proposed in the national waters of Fiji, the Cook Islands, Tonga and New Zealand. The process regulating DSM is distinct. Permits to explore for minerals are issued by governments within their territorial waters - 200 nautical miles from shore - or by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in international waters. Formed in 1994, the ISA was established by the UN to regulate international waters, described as "common heritage of mankind" and not subject to direct claims by sovereign states. But a major criticism of the ISA has been the issuance of exploration permits without having first approved environmental standards. Despite issuing mining permits since its inception, it wasn't until July 2015 that the ISA began drafting a framework on environmental standards and regulations, which is still to be finalized. A policy paper published in Science called for the ISA to cease issuing permits until environmental controls are in place. Written by researchers from the Center for Ocean Solutions and co-authors from leading global institutions, the report proposes a strategy for balancing commercial extraction with protection for seabed habitats. But despite the paper's warnings, the ISA went ahead and authorized the latest Pacific exploration contract to China Minmetals. Altogether, the ISA has issued 27 permits for mineral exploration covering around 1.2 million square miles of seabed. All but eight have been issued within the last four years.
In the US, the Center for Biological Diversity launched a lawsuit against the government over its approval of the first-ever large-scale DSM exploration project between Hawaii and Mexico, claiming it lacked the required environmental assessment.
New Zealand is another country where anti-DSM campaigning has been strong due to the government's 2004 Foreshore and Seabed legislation, which created a series of prospecting permits for companies seeking to exploit the iron sand reserves in the west coast seabed. Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM) was established in 2005 to protest DSM, and its biggest victory to date came against Trans Tasman Resources in December of last year. TTR wanted to mine 50 million tons of iron sand from the seabed, but was rejected by the country's Environment Protection Authority.
"To date seabed mining has been very much under the radar but it absolutely warrants a lot more attention," said Phil McCabe, chairman of KASM. "Greenpeace has stated that seabed mining has the potential to have the largest areal impact on the planet of any human activity - it's akin to deforestation on a massive scale, and we need to turn people on to what it is."
Yet again, capitalism is willing to sacrifice unique life-sustaining ecosystems for the short-term profit of some big corporation with very little thought given to the long-term environmental costs of such brazen exploitation of resources.