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Scientists call for Stronger Environmental Standards for Deep-sea Mining

Published by MAC on 2015-07-18
Source: Statement, Popular Science (2015-07-16)

Deep-sea Mining Regulations Need Stronger Environmental Protections

Center for Biological Diversity Press Release

16 July 2015

KINGSTON, Jamaica— Scientists and conservationists are calling on the International Seabed Authority, now meeting in Jamaica, to adopt stronger-than-proposed protections for wildlife and oceans in setting environmental standards for deep-sea mining projects. The Center for Biological Diversity, which recently sued the United States government for issuing deep-sea mining permits that circumvent the ISA’s nascent environmental review process, warns that the current push to start strip-mining the ocean floor could do irreparable damage to marine life.    

“Big corporations are rushing to mine our deep seas before scientists fully understand these mysterious ecosystems or how to protect them. We need to slow this process down and do whatever we can to shield them from the new gold rush,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director for the Center. “And we don’t think the United States should be defying the international system and breaking its own environmental laws to permit deep-sea mining.”     

In May the Center sued the U.S. government for issuing exploratory permits to a Lockheed Martin subsidiary for mining work in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone halfway between Mexico and Hawaii. That claim is independent of the ISA, which includes the 161 nations that have adopted the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Also in May the Center submitted comments to the ISA on the development of its regulatory process, supporting proposals by the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative to establish an independent review board and to broaden the ISA’s focus on individual projects to take into account regional and cumulative impacts. In addition the Center urged the ISA to improve its public noticing and comment procedures and to deny applications that involve significant environment impacts. Meanwhile the Center for Ocean Solutions published a study in the July 9 issue of Science calling for the ISA to create marine-protected areas in international waters where mining would be banned, a proposal the Center also supports.

“This sort of large-scale industrial mining on our ocean floors is inherently destructive, so we need to do all we can to protect sea life from its impacts,” Sakashita said.     

The deep ocean is believed to contain billions of dollars worth of nickel, copper, cobalt, manganese, zinc, gold and other rare-earth metals and minerals. Extracting those materials has been considered too expensive, difficult and risky for investors in the past, but technological advances and skyrocketing prices for these materials have led to a strong push by the mining industry. The ISA has issued 26 exploratory mining permits in international waters, and another project permitted by Papua New Guinea in its territorial waters, Solwara I, could soon become an active commercial mining operation. The ISA’s 21st annual session in Jamaica began July 14 and ends July 24.   

Learn more and read about the Center’s lawsuit at www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/deep-sea_mining/.

Contact: Steve Jones, (415) 305-3866, sjones@biologicaldiversity.org

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 900,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places


Scientists Call For Temporary Halt On New Deep Sea Mining Projects

This month’s International Seabed Authority meeting could determine the fate of underwater habitats

Mary Beth Griggs

Popular Science

9 July 2015

A policy paper published today in Science is asking authorities to hold off on approving any more underwater mining contracts until more environmental controls are put in place.

The timing of this policy paper is key. Currently in Kingston, Jamaica, the International Seabed Authority (ISA)--the arm of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that governs mining in international waters--is holding its annual session. ISA has already issued exploration permits to both national and private companies all eager to get a piece of the action. In this year's session, the Authority is expected to figure out how to impose some environmental regulation on the nascent underwater mining industry.

Deep-sea mining of the ocean floor is still very much in the exploration phase. The real action likely won't start for a few more years. Nautilus Minerals, one of the leading deep sea mining companies expects to have its deep sea mining vessel built in 2017, and would start mining at some point after that.

The scientists writing today's paper want the ISA to hold off on issuing new permits until a network of protected marine areas can be put in place, potentially safeguarding an environment that we know very little about.

The advantages of underwater mining are that there is potentially a lot of resources there that we need for high-tech devices. And by using remote controlled machines instead of human miners, deep sea mining has the potential to be safer for humans.

There's also the fact that all the action in deep sea mining is happening ... well, deep in the ocean. As in, not where we live. The environmental impacts happening 20,000 leagues under the sea will be further from the public's gaze. And while that's good for people, it might not be good for the environment in general. The authors of the paper warn that deep sea environments tend to recover very slowly when disturbed, some so slowly that they likely wouldn't recover in a human's lifetime, if ever.

The exact effects of long-term or extensive mining on the ocean floor remain unclear, but they probably won't be for long. A European team of scientists announced this year that they would be studying the ecological effects of deep sea mining on the environment and organisms living on the seafloor.

In the meantime, the ISA has the tricky task of balancing humanity's need for valuable commodities of metals and rare earth elements against a biologically diverse seafloor that we're only just starting to explore. We could see a decision by the time the session closes on July 24.

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