By Rosie Chambers, Campaign Manager for The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition‘s Deep-sea Mining Moratorium campaign.
Although most of us will never have the chance to visit the deep sea, in a healthy state it helps make all life on Earth possible. It provides a vast range of services, and in many ways is the planet’s life support system.
Making up 90% of our ocean, the deep sea (everything below 200 m) is the largest living space on Earth. It provides oxygen, stores carbon, supports fisheries and offers immeasurable spiritual and cultural significance for people around the world. It is also home to amazing, highly vulnerable species. The majority of these are yet to be discovered and may hold the key to our future: recently the test to diagnose COVID-19 was developed using an enzyme found in a hydrothermal vent.
But is there deep trouble ahead?
The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), made up of over 80 organizations worldwide, aims to safeguard the long-term health of the deep ocean. To address one of the severest threats it faces, we are calling for a global moratorium on an emerging new industry – deep-sea mining.
Speculators propose to strip-mine and vacuum up valuable mineral deposits from the deep sea for profit. This includes polymetallic nodules (themselves mini ecosystems!) and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts, primarily for the tech industry including battery storage. Prospective miners claim that deep-sea minerals are essential for a decarbonised future, yet their assumptions are rooted in an extractivist approach inconsistent with the need to transition to an alternative economic model. Recycling potential is, for example, largely untapped while rapid developments in new battery technology make it challenging to accurately predict future metals demand and offer a vision of the future where no new mines are needed.
The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is the intergovernmental body tasked with regulating and controlling all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area beyond national jurisdiction, responsible for ensuring the effective protection of the common heritage of humankind from the harmful effects of mining activities. However, as of June 2020, the ISA has already issued exploration licenses for 1.3 million km² of the deep seabed. If these were converted to exploitation licenses, it would create the largest set of mining operations ever undertaken, causing widespread, irreversible harm.
Scientists say that the damage from deep-sea mining could include permanent ecosystem destruction, the disruption of critical oceanic processes, impacts on commercial fisheries already under pressure, and ‘real extinction risks’ for deep-sea organisms. Surely none of these scenarios is worth the risk?
Our #DeepTrouble campaign at the DSCC highlights these looming threats and aims to broaden public support for protecting the deep sea. It includes a tailor-made online game to engage new audiences, pitting you, a shamelessly adorable Dumbo octopus, against an onslaught of mining gear. The set-up of the game is a nod to the epic arcade game Space Invaders, only after players have helped Dumbo defend her home from deep-sea mining invaders, they can take real-world action by emailing their government and calling for a moratorium (‘precautionary pause’) on the adoption of regulations and the issuing of any exploitation contracts for deep-sea mining (although activities such as marine scientific research, education and institutional reform of the ISA would all be permitted to continue).
Why a moratorium? Because at the moment we do not have sufficient understanding of the biology and ecology of the deep sea. To make informed decisions on if, how and where to mine, we need to know more about the value of the ecological services provided by this unique environment. Neither have we had enough time to understand the impacts of the mineral extraction, the resulting sediment plumes in the water column, nor the permanent ecosystem destruction and loss predicted. Scientists say we must protect nature if we are to avert the next pandemic. Opening a new frontier of exploitation does the opposite.
Governments around the world have an obligation to honour their commitments to safeguard ocean health. We have a shared, collective responsibility to ‘sustainable development’, which means leaving the world (which is 70% ocean) in good condition for future generations. All countries have signed up to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), along with numerous other relevant conventions and agreements. SDG 14 in particular requires us to ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.’ Giving the green light to deep-sea mining negates these agreements.
Global momentum for a moratorium on deep-sea mining continues to build with the support of the European Commission, a growing number of scientists, civil society groups, young ocean leaders and well known public figures such as David Attenborough amongst others. Most recently, the Minister of the Sea for Portugal, Ricardo Serrão Santos, also publicly stated in the Portuguese Parliament that he supports a moratorium on deep seabed mining, while the Prime Ministers of Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea have similarly called for a moratorium in national waters.
To protect the ocean and the life-support functions it performs for our planet and humankind, we must all take urgent action in its defense, stand with the science, and call for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. We don’t need this dangerous new industry; we don’t want it and it isn’t worth the risk.
Will you take action today by emailing your president or prime minister and asking them to defend the deep sea?
Rosie Chambers the Campaign Manager for The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition’s Deep-sea Mining Moratorium campaign. The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) is a coalition made up of over 80 non-government organizations, fishers organizations and law and policy institutes worldwide. These organisations work together under the DSCC umbrella to safeguard the long-term health of the deep sea by reducing the greatest threats it faces.
This post is part of Ocean Unite’s blog series. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Ocean Unite.