Opportunity, calamity in the balance amid plans to mine the deep sea

© NOAA Ocean Explorer

Editor’s note: The search for new sources of metals and minerals for the world’s growing consumer class is heading underwater. The potential for mining the seabed has companies excited — but could pose environmental threats if not done carefully.

A paper published today in the journal Science presents recommendations for how the International Seabed Authority can work to ensure that the world’s seabeds are managed sustainably for the benefit of all people. Jack Kittinger, director of Conservation International Hawai‘i and coauthor of the paper, explains.  

Q: Oil companies have been deep-sea drilling for years, yet seabed mining is only in the early stages. Why is it taking off now?

A: It’s due to a combination of economics and technology. The technology for deep-sea mining is getting cheaper, and the price of some of these minerals is going up. Right now, for example, China has cornered the global market on rare earth minerals, and other countries want to get in the game. Continued manufacturing of computers and cell phones — as well as equipment used in renewable energy generation — requires these minerals, so the price has gone up.

Exploratory studies in the seabed have shown that there’s all kinds of stuff down there: gold, copper, manganese, rare earth minerals and more. For the first time, reaching it is becoming economically feasible.

Further reading

Q: We’re talking about areas outside countries’ exclusive economic zones — areas that in theory belong to everyone. How does the global community decide which nations can mine where?

A: It’s a very complicated process. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the U.N. body that manages this area, has issued mining licenses to specific countries, state-owned organizations and private corporations, giving them rights for exploration. Since 2001, the ISA has granted 26 of these contracts covering more than 1 million square kilometers [386,000 square miles] of seabed. Eighteen of them were granted in the last four years.

Q: Why should people care about seabeds?

A: At the 2007 workshop that inspired this paper, I remember Craig Smith [paper coauthor and a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation] saying something that took me by surprise. He showed us a picture of the deep-sea floor and said “This is the most abundant habitat type on Earth. And we know almost nothing about it.”

My colleague Greg Stone echoed this sentiment in a blog about the deep sea, where he explained how deep-sea currents help stabilize the climate and provide nutrients that form the basis of marine food webs. Every time scientists go down there, we find new species. It may not look like much, but there’s an incredible amount of unique life in that area — species that could provide life-saving medicines or other as-yet unknown benefits for people.

Another reason people should care that we have what is probably an unprecedented opportunity to protect a major habitat type before human impacts begin.

Q: What risks does seabed mining pose?

A: Mining underwater is similar to mining on land: You are altering the habitat for innumerable species. One thing that makes this environment different is that deep-sea habitats don’t recover quickly, if at all (the exception is active hydrothermal vents). We have seen this with bottom trawling by deep-sea fishers; 30 years later, the area looks identical to the day after they trawled it.

Another major risk is sedimentation. Bringing up this material from the seafloor will create what we call “sediment plumes,” which will impact the water column above the seabed.

The truth is we don’t know exactly how big the impacts will be, since no one has conducted large-scale mining at these depths before. But that’s all the more reason to proceed with caution.

Q: The International Seabed Authority is convening to discuss next steps for regulating seabed mining. What’s your main recommendation for them?

A: We want the ISA to establish regional networks of no-mining marine protected areas (MPAs) in all the places where they are licensing mining contracts — and we are urging them to do this before mining starts.

The MPAs must be connected through networks because a lot of fauna that live at this depth need lots of room to feed, swim and spawn. Additionally, our author group recommends that these MPAs be surrounded by 100-kilometer [62-mile] buffer zones in order to give the sediment plumes room to settle before reaching the most vital biodiversity areas.

In fact, the ISA has already considered creating a network of MPAs in an area of the Pacific known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), south of Hawaii and to the east of Kiribati — both areas where CI works. In 2012, I and the other authors of this paper helped the ISA develop the deep sea’s first regional environmental management plan in this area, honoring existing mining exploration claims while protecting delicate habitats. The CCZ could serve as a model for deep-sea ecosystem management in other places.

A new species from the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ). There is still much we don’t know about the deep sea. (© Craig Smith and Diva Amon, ABYSSLINE Project)

Q: Ultimately, where does seabed protection fit amid the need to access mineral resources?

A: Setting aside these protected areas won’t just be good for the ocean; it’ll also be good for business. By ensuring that the most vulnerable areas are off-limits to mining, we can reduce the risk of significant environmental destruction — a win-win for both the planet and the reputation of the countries and companies involved in mining. At the same time, by establishing protected areas before major mining operations begin, we can reduce companies’ uncertainty about future regulations.

I think it’s probably a good thing that if we can pursue sustainable mining in these areas. The demand for these materials isn’t going away, and seabed mining could allow world markets and technology development to benefit — driving innovation that is key to issues such as renewable energy, communications and sustainable development.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea legally declares the deep seabed to be part of the “common heritage of mankind,” which means it collectively belongs to all people on Earth. As stewards of this area, the ISA has a responsibility to find the right balance between protection and extraction — a balance that will mean the best for all of us in the long term.

Dr. Jack Kittinger is the director of Conservation International’s Hawai‘i program. Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.

Cover image: A baby octopus (Graneledone verrucosa) moves across the seabed. Seabed mining poses a risk to marine ecosystems, but good management practices can help ensure that this operation is done safely and sustainably. (© NOAA Ocean Explorer)