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The uncertainty of deep sea mining

ByUrsula Dallman

Mar 7, 2018

Deep sea mining (DSM) is a relatively new mineral retrieval process that takes place on the ocean floor. Ocean mining sites are usually situated around large areas of polymetallic nodules or active and extinct hydrothermal vents up to 3,700 metres below the ocean’s surface. The vents create sulfide deposits, containing valuable metals such as silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt, and zinc.

The deposits are mined using either hydraulic pumps or bucket systems that take ore to the surface to be processed. But what do we know about DSM’s environmental impacts?

Due to DSM being a relatively new field, the answer is very little. Research shows that polymetallic nodule fields are hotspots of abundance and diversity for a highly vulnerable abyssal fauna. The ecosystems surrounding hydrothermal vents have been found to host over 500 unidentified species.

Scientists believe that DSM will result in disturbances to the benthic layer, increased toxicity of the water column and sediment plumes from tailings. This increases the turbidity of the water, clogging filter-feeding apparatuses used by benthic organisms. It also impacts zooplankton and light penetration, affecting photosynthesis and the food web of the area. Secondary impacts include leakages, spills and corrosion that could alter the mining area’s chemistry.

So, should DSM go ahead? Nautilus Minerals, the world’s first DSM company, certainly thinks so. The Solwara 1 project is viewed as prosperous because of the rising demand for metals due to the development of electric vehicles and storage batteries. Despite this prosperity however, the possible ramifications may not be worth it.

The company failed to raise US$41 million for the project by the end of 2017, as well as US$270 million to build and deploy the seafloor production system for the project.

Furthermore, in January, Arnold Amet, former PNG attorney-general and justice minister, asked the government to end its partnership with Nautilus, saying that the mining project was financially risky and posed an environmental threat. The international community’s legal position largely ignores environmental safeguards when it comes to Deep Sea Mining.

“Villagers have already reported high incidents of dead fish washing up on shore including strange deep sea creatures that are not familiar to anyone and are actually hot to the touch,” said Julian Aguon, a Guam based lawyer.

A new international agreement is needed to prevent the exploitation of the deep ocean because of the rising threats of DSM and bottom trawling for fish.

“Deep-sea trawling for fish has already had terrible long-lasting impacts on the deep sea”, says Kristina Gjerde, a high seas policy advisor for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The deep-sea fish populations are quickly depleted because of the fish aggregate, making them easy to catch. One-fifth of the world’s continental margins, an area the size of the United States and Canada combined, have already been trawled.

Significant deep-sea resources are often found within the deep seas of the developing world. “Yet these countries often don’t have the necessary expertise or technology to explore the deep seabed. They rely on countries that do have the technology and expertise,” said Gjerde. “It is important to set and maintain common standards so that a few unscrupulous operators can’t take advantage of countries with weak legal systems, causing irreparable harm in return for very short-term gain. These countries must be able to manage their own deep ocean resources.”

Given the environmental risks, Nautilus Minerals should place more emphasis on protecting the diverse marine biodiversity and seas within the Pacific and focus on the money and benefits that tourism can bring rather than just on the economic gains to be made by exploiting the minerals beneath.

Image credit: designatic via unsplash

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