March 30, 2023

Scientists warn of “significant risks” and “irreversible” impacts on ecosystems

Currently, seabed mining is still not allowed under international law. According to the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a body created in 1982 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea whose mission is to regulate this activity in waters outside the exclusive jurisdiction of states , “no mining operation has started anywhere in the world”, at least not in international waters.

What has been done so far is “exploration activities on the ocean floor to collect the necessary information on the location and quality of minerals on the seabed, as well as to collect all necessary environmental information,” the ISA says. To date, 30 of these exploration missions have been approved, covering more than 1.3 million square kilometers of seabed, about 0.3% of the world’s land area.

On its online portal, the authority notes that deepwater mining can only begin “once the exploration regulations currently being developed by the ISA” are agreed and approved by its Council. However, environmentalists and scientists are already sounding the alarm.

According to Greenpeace, deep-sea mining may receive the “green light” from the ISA as early as July 2023. If this happens, companies in this sector will, for the first time, be able to exploit miners on its bottom ocean on an industrial scale. The non-governmental organization warns that, by granting exploration permits, “important ecosystems such as seamounts and deep hydrothermal vents” could be threatened.

In a joint study, Greenpeace and scientists at the University of Exeter, UK, warn that allowing deep-sea mining could have “significant risks to ocean ecosystems” and “permanent and irreversible” impacts on many species, including those already at risk today. like the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus).

The paper, published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, warns of the risk that some areas being considered for exploration may overlap with the habitats of cetaceans, such as whales and dolphins, especially in the Pacific Ocean, in an area between Mexico and Hawaii, known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.

Photo: NOAA/Unsplash

This is because it is estimated that this area is home to at least 25 species of cetaceans and 17 permits have already been granted by ISA for exploratory activities in this area. If mining permits are granted, “giant machines weighing more than a blue whale would have to work 24 hours a day, producing noises at various depths that can overlap the frequencies that cetaceans use to communicate,” Greenpeace says.

Louisa Casson, from the environmental group, believes that “deep-sea mining companies are determined to start plundering the oceans, although very little research has been done on the effects this industry could have on whales, dolphins and other kinds.”

For the activist, “deep-sea mining could harm the oceans in ways that are not yet fully understood and at the expense of species, such as blue whales, that have been the focus of conservation efforts for many years.” Therefore, “governments cannot fulfill their commitments to protect the oceans if they allow deep-sea mining,” he argues.

So researchers and environmentalists are joining their voices and demanding that more studies be carried out on the possible effects of this activity on marine life before the ISA gives the ‘lead’.

Kirsten Thompson, from the University of Exeter and one of the authors of the paper, explains that “cetaceans are very sensitive to sound, so mining noise is a concern”, also recalling that “like many animals, cetaceans already face multiple stressors factors, including climate change”.

The researcher says the team looked for data on the noise levels expected to be produced by mining, but could find no such estimate.

“We know that noise pollution in the ocean is already a problem for cetaceans, and the introduction of another industry that is expected to operate 24 hours a day will inevitably intensify the current anthropogenic noise,” he stresses, noting that “despite the lack of information, it appears that mining on an industrial scale could start soon” in what he considers to be one of the few environments left on the planet that has not yet been disturbed by humans.

“What we do know is that it’s going to be very difficult to stop deepwater mining once it starts,” Thompson points out.

Photo: Welcome everyone!ツ / Pixabay

Portugal is one of the member states of the ISA, an organization it joined in 1997. Environmentalists believe the country’s position on deep-sea mining has been woefully unclear.

Last December, at the World Summit on Biodiversity (COP15), a resolution on deep-sea mining was adopted that recognizes the need to strengthen cooperation on the “conservation and sustainable management of marine and coastal biodiversity”, which is its title document , and highlights the importance of science and “traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities” in achieving this balance between exploration, extraction and recovery.

This statement, which had Portugal’s approval, does not provide for any ban or moratorium on mining that would allow enough time to properly assess the potential impacts of deep-sea mining on marine life, a solution supported by Portuguese organizations.

ANP|WWF told us, at the time, that “recently, Portuguese researchers concluded that offshore mining in the Azores would produce sediment plumes that could cover an area of ​​up to 150 km2 and extend vertically up to 1000 m into the water column , with large geographic overlaps between plumes and existing fisheries, causing unavoidable damage.”

ISA member states will meet between next March and July, in Jamaica, to decide whether or not the mining will go ahead, and there does not appear to be consensus among the various governments, with some such as France, New Zealand and Chile, showing opposition to any trade pressure to start operations this year. It remains to be seen whether the speeches made at COP15 about the importance of defending the oceans will also resonate on the issue of deep-sea mining, or whether other interests will win out.

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