Should countries mine the seabed, an area rich in mineral resources, from manganese to cobalt, without understanding the impact such an activity would have on the ocean environment? A large number of politicians, scientists, and campaigners (including French President Emmanuel Macron) are saying we shouldn’t, and are calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until we truly understand its consequences.
At the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, French President Emmanuel Macron said a legal framework was necessary to stop deep-sea mining from starting, asking countries to invest in science to better understand and protect the oceans. “We don’t have to allow new activities putting in danger these ecosystems,” Macron said in a statement.
The issue was high on the agenda all week in the conference, with the president of the Pacific island nation of Palau Surangel Whipps Jr launching an alliance of countries seeking a moratorium on deep-sea mining. Whipps Jr said deep-sea mining “should be discouraged to the greatest extent possible” as it “compromises the ocean habitat.”
Palau’s President was joined on stage by world-famous oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who said the risks of the activity should be “the headline issue of our time.” Earle argued “there’s no way” deep-sea mining should be carried out “now or maybe ever” as it could “tear up” ecosystems of which we don’t have sufficient information.”
The Pacific island nations of Fiji, Samoa, Tuvalu and Guam also announced they would join the coalition against deep-sea mining. Experts said they are hopeful other countries will come forward soon. Chile, for example, recently called for a 15-year moratorium, citing concerns about environmental damage and lack of information.
Simultaneously, the rich G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the United States) agreed to implement “the strictest environmental standards” for deep-sea mining, if the activity eventually occurs. In a statement, they also said the mining projects would only be carried out if they don’t affect the environment, asking for the activity to be well regulated if it’s approved.
“The momentum created this week at the Ocean Conference is a tipping point for the deep ocean, the blue heart of our planet. President Macron has effectively echoed the countless calls this week to press ‘pause’ on any and all ambitions to mine the deep sea,” the Director of the Deep-Sea Conservation Coalition Sian Owen said in a press conference.
The way forward
The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN organization, is finishing up the regulations that would govern seabed mining in the high seas – areas outside any national jurisdiction. Until these global rules are in place, seabed mining isn’t allowed. However, tension seems to be escalating regarding the potential effects of the activity.
Most mineral deposits on land are running short as our society is driving an increasing demand for green energy technologies and consumer electronics. This has led many to focus their attention on the minerals in the deep sea. The seafloor has a wide array of mineral resources and supports many species, many still unknown to science.
The common targets in the deep sea are copper, cobalt, manganese, silver and gold, among many others. Exploration is focused on three main mineral deposits: polymetallic sulfides (that form near hydrothermal vents, polymetallic nodules (lying on the seafloor) and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts that cover seamounts.
Massive machines that weigh more than a blue whale will scoop and dredge seabed formations to obtain these minerals. The deposits would then be piped up to a ship through kilometres of tubing and processed at sea. Remotely operated underwater vehicles have progressed greatly, but they are far from perfect, as seen recently.
“The International Seabed Authority has been rushing headlong into this risky industry while ignoring its mandate to protect the oceans. The deep ocean, one of the world’s largest, most fragile, and important ecosystems, must remain off-limits to the mining industry,” Greenpeace oceans project lead Arlo Hemphill said in a statement in Lisbon.