Greenpeace Report Warns of Irreversible Harm from Deepsea Mining

Salps courtesy of Greenpeace / Gavin Newman
Salps courtesy of Greenpeace / Gavin Newman

By The Maritime Executive 07-02-2019 08:52:54

The world’s oceans could face severe and irreversible harm unless tighter environmental safeguards are in place that protect them from deep sea mining, warns a new international report, In Deep Water, released by Greenpeace. 

The report calls on governments to agree a strong Global Ocean Treaty in the next 12 months that puts conservation, not exploitation, at the heart of ocean governance.

The Greenpeace report cites scientists, governments, environmentalists and representatives of the fishing industry, who warn of the threats to marine life across vast areas of the world’s oceans from mining machinery and toxic pollution. 

It also claims that by impacting on natural processes that store carbon, deep sea mining could even make climate change worse by releasing carbon stored in deep sea sediments or disrupting the processes which help scavenge carbon and deliver it to those sediments. Deep sea sediments are known to be an important long-term store of “blue carbon,” the carbon that is naturally absorbed by marine life, a proportion of which is carried down to the sea floor as those creatures die.

The report states that machines cutting and collecting on the seafloor will create sediment plumes, potentially smothering seafloor habitats for kilometers around the mining site. “Surface vessels would discharge smothering and potentially toxic plumes into the water column, spreading water containing suspended particles – which could impact on a far greater range of ocean species beyond deep sea creatures. Depending on where plumes are released, this pollution could travel hundreds or even thousands of kilometers. 

“Noise generated by machinery also risks harming and disturbing marine mammals and other marine creatures, including causing temporary or permanent damage to hearing, while artificial floodlighting of operations could cause permanent disruption to sea creatures adapted to very low levels of natural light in the deep ocean.”

Although commercial mining has not yet begun, 29 exploration licenses have been granted to a handful of countries who have laid claim to vast areas of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, covering an area of 1.3 million square kilometers - five times the surface area of the U.K. 

The U.K. Government holds more seabed licenses than any government apart from China. “We need the U.K. Government to show strong global leadership and champion ocean protection,” said Louisa Casson, ocean campaigner at Greenpeace. “They have backed the call for global action to safeguard our oceans, but they are also a leading advocate for deep sea mining. Such hypocrisy is unacceptable.”

The report says the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the U.N. body responsible for regulating the deep sea mining industry, is prioritizing development of the deep sea mining industry over robust protection. 

However, Michael W. Lodge, Secretary-General of the ISA said earlier this month that deep seabed mining has the potential to accelerate progress towards achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by increasing scientific knowledge of the deep ocean whilst at the same time providing opportunities for economic growth on the basis of fairness and equity. “Mining and metals are essential for a low carbon future and are an integral part of achieving the 2030 Agenda,” said Lodge in his remarks at the U.N. Global Compact Action Platform for Sustainable Ocean Business High-Level meeting on Ocean. 

“But even under the most optimistic scenarios, total materials requirements will increase at a pace faster than can be compensated by increased recycling or new discoveries on land - the deep seabed harbors the largest untapped mineral resource known to mankind, including the copper, manganese, nickel and cobalt that will be needed to support mass electrification," said Lodge. “Unlike any other part of the global commons, the deep seabed is subject to a unique global regime, managed through ISA, with an emphasis on equity in allocation of access to resources, combined with environmental protection. No other resource on the planet is managed in this way.” 

The report is available here.