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Deep Sea Takes CENTER STAGE in Ever Worsening Climate and Biodiversity Crises

Featured Image: Crossota millsae. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2019 Southeastern U.S. Deep-sea Exploration.

The future of the deep sea hangs in the balance

As communities around the world are reeling from the impacts of escalating climate change and the mostly unchecked loss of biodiversity, the destruction of the Earth’s largest ecosystem is poised to become the next battleground in the fight to save our planet and ourselves. The deep sea is one of the largest reservoirs of biodiversity on the planet and one of our greatest ‘allies’ against climate change.

Until now the nations of the world have been working on negotiating environmental safeguards for seabed mining under the Law of the Sea Convention to ensure protection of the largely unexplored deep sea. However, all this changed last week when a tiny Pacific Island country triggered a byzantine international rule process that will allow the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to move forward with seabed mining in the next two years, possibly without any agreed environmental protections in place.

Ironically, this push to exploit the deep comes at a time when nations are finally taking desperately needed steps to address climate change, establish a new biodiversity agreement, and expand protections for marine life on the high seas, amidst a backdrop of over 80 countries committing to dramatically increase nature protection (30×30).

Chimera. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2019 Southeastern U.S. Deep-sea Exploration.

Mining in the deep sea will result in catastrophic biodiversity loss to an area encompassing 90% of the habitat on Earth. Mining in the sea poses a wide range of impacts to marine life—not just the tearing up of the seafloor to extract the minerals, but the lights, sounds and debris clouds will blind, deafen, and smother those that are swimming in the waters above the mining activities. We know next to nothing of these strange and diverse species that rely on subtle forms of blinking light to communicate with one another or confuse predators and prey. To make matters worse, these systems are remarkably long lived and stable—recovery on any timescale we can relate with is impossible – hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of years.

Scientists are also warning of the potential negative impacts deep-sea mining may have on species living in the water column, fisheries, including tuna fisheries, as well as whales and other deep-diving oceanic species.

The pre-prototype nodule collector developed by Global Sea Mineral Resources. Source: DEME Group

The destructive extractive industry may lead to the potential loss of new medicines, as well (a crucial COVID-19 test was developed from an enzyme isolated from a microbe that lives in deep-sea hydrothermal vents). Imagine driving species to extinction before they have even been discovered—and the accompanying loss of potential new vital solutions to Earth’s biggest problems.

One small island, one giant leap for mega mining companies

The Pacific Island nation Nauru is the sponsoring state for a deep-sea mining effort by Nauru Ocean Resources Inc, (NORI), a subsidiary of DeepGreen, the company currently leading the charge to open deep-sea mining (unfamiliar with how the ISA grants exploration contracts? Read more here). Nauru has invoked the ‘two-year rule,’ which allows for a mining plan to be provisionally approved after two years under whatever rules are in place at that time.

“The ISA has been unable to meet since 2020, and the step by Nauru appears to use the international pandemic to bypass decision-making by curtailing the prevailing norms of due process, inclusivity and good governance,” said inter-national lawyer Duncan Currie. “Invoking the 2-year rule risks shattering the reputation of the ISA itself. It is hard to believe that DeepGreen, and Nauru, would be so irresponsible.”

A slew of articles came out recently in the Wall Street JournalBloomberg and The Guardian raising concerns about DeepGreen, and the rush to open up a whole new frontier, the deep seabed, to large-scale industrial resource extraction for profit. Since then, more than 350 marine science and policy experts from across the globe have signed up to a statement, calling for a moratorium on the emerging, destructive industry.

Nodules on the sea floor. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Only last week, prospective miners, DeepGreen, finally admitted in a regulatory filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, that “impacts on biodiversity and the ocean ecosystem cannot, and may never be, completely and definitively known” and that “it is unknown whether the impact of nodule collection on global biodiversity will be less significant than those observed and measured with respect to land-based mining for a similar amount of required metal”.

A call to action—before it’s too late

Marine Conservation Institute, a founding member of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), is calling on the countries that are members of the International Seabed Authority to stand up and support a moratorium on deep-sea mining. We are also urging the ISA to immediately cancel the two exploration contracts of companies which are effectively controlled by DeepGreen, rather than by the sponsoring states (such as Nauru’s NORI), and put a hold on the issuing of any new exploration contracts. 

The ISA was established by the UN Law of the Sea Convention to look after the deep ocean on behalf of humanity. It is required to act ‘for the benefit of humankind as a whole’ but is failing to do so.

Forty years ago, when the Law of the Sea first established the ISA, biodiversity wasn’t a consideration. Now that research is beginning to reveal the incalculable value of the deep sea—from its life-saving new medicines and undiscovered species to its capacity to mediate climate –we are also beginning to build global momentum to conserve what we can before it’s too late. Triggering this 2-year rush to begin mining without proper regulations could be the worst possible timing and could result in the worst possible outcome of ISA’s anachronistic systems—an outcome that could last millions of years.  

The science is clear: while there is much still to learn about the deep sea, a fast-tracked push for poorly regulated mining will mean—beyond a shadow of a doubt—irreversible damage to the largest and most mysterious habitat on Earth.