The romance of the high seas has captured our imaginations for centuries, with stories, poems and shanties told of the power and wonder of the oceans. Today, while we’ve pretty much explored its surface, what lies below is still relatively unexplored. And this is what’s driving explorative deep sea mining, one of the most environmentally damaging practices of our times.
Why is it happening?
As with a lot of harmful activities we humans insist on doing, which harms our planet’s habitats and biodiversity, it’s an issue of ownership. That is to say, who owns the sea bed? Back in 1982, after some lengthy haggling that took ten years, a UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was brokered. Called, UNCLOS III, it set out a law in which a country which borders onto the ocean ‘owns’ anywhere between three to twelve nautical miles of that stretch of coastline. Furthermore, the new rules also introduced an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in which the coastal nation would have sole rights to exploit any natural resources within its EEZ. In total, 36% of the ocean falls under the EEZ of a coastal nation.
The rest of the sea, well that belongs to nobody. Or everybody, depending on your viewpoint. UNCLOSS III is signed by 167 countries, with the exception of Iran and the US, which is, ironically, very heavy handed when it comes to securing freedom of navigation when it suits America’s interests.
Pirates off the starboard bow
The free waters, as they once were hundreds of years ago, are still a pretty lawless place where plunder and ill-gotten gains prevail. This is partly due to neglect from international governmental organizations and the fact that nobody seems to be concerned about the high seas unless it suits them. A nautical NIMBY situation. But, as a new 2021 study shows, we all need to be more concerned about what’s actually happening in our global ocean backyard when bottom trawling releases as much carbon as air travel.
When there’s nowhere else to go
The natural deposits of precious metals, stone and minerals are all but exhausted on land, but the global demand continues to rise. And, as we’ve seen with the historical path of other forms of resource mining exploration like oil and gas, when we don’t find what we want on the land, we head to the ocean.
Deep sea mining, in this respect, is a relative newcomer, introduced in the 60s in a J. L. Mero book, Mero’s Mineral Resources of the Sea. Although scientists began being interested in the mineral deposits of the sea bed when a dredging ship snared a chunk of iron ore just north of Russia. The thing is though, ore mining in the ocean is a more complex process than mining for oil, which has meant it’s taken a while for mining technology to mature. That said, interest and investment has increased in recent years now that the tech is more advanced and reliable. Current projections are that deep sea mining will be well established as an industry by as early as 2025.
While our natural resources are finite, the demand for minerals like copper, nickel, aluminium, zinc, lithium and cobalt is growing year after year. Surging needs for these minerals, so we can keep producing smartphones, batteries, computers and even ‘nice things’ like wind turbines and solar panels.
Scientists know much more today about where to find these mineral deposits, around hydrothermal vents, close to midocean ridges and little nodules about the size of potato on the ocean floor. And there’s gas companies too which are interested in the frozen deposits of natural gas, called methane hydrates, that lie on the seabed.
While marine scientists may be more savvy about the mineral treasure trove on the seabed, others that are more focused on sea life and oceanic habitats are racing to catch up. And it’s these findings about marine biodiversity which is essential to argue against deep sea mining.
How does deep sea mining damage the ocean
Light, noise, disruption and discharge pretty much sum up the many ways ocean life and habitat are disrupted by deep-sea mining. The seismic surveys which are used to explore potential mining grounds are so powerful they affect the natural orientation systems of crustaceans, fish and mammals. The 200+ decibel blasts from these tools carry for hundreds of kilometres up to six times per minute.
The lights from the ships and floating mining rigs are also known to have a similar disruption on fish and mammals, again causing confusion and interfering with the natural instincts of marine wildlife.
Most worrying of all, as the new research we touched on earlier reveals, is the scraping and vacuuming of the deposits.
The potential for damage to the ocean bed and natural habitats and biodiversity from these two activities is a real concern. Aside from the destruction of seabed habitats, huge plumes of sediment is created, which choke filter-feeding fish in the vicinity. And the sediment’s sequestered carbon is released, which is the largest carbon storage pool in the world. The sediment also increases the acidification of oceans, another thing that is destabilising our oceans and affecting the natural growth of coral reefs and shellfish.
What can be done
As deep sea mining is still relatively new, there is still an element of caution among authorities and the International Seabed Authority is still writing the rules for ocean protection. Sadly it appears to be relying on information from mining companies themselves, with scientific research lacking somewhat.
So we can support the work of agencies who are lobbying for better regulation and also make sure we’re donating to local grassroots organizations which are working to protect endangered fish and ocean mammals and prevent coral destruction.
It’s by being active on a small local scale that real progress can be made immediately while pushing against larger organizations and governments can slow down the emergence of deep sea mining before it spirals beyond control.