What are the consequences of deep sea mining for the marine ecosystem?
Photo: © Ryan McMinds

Deep sea mining set to start

The seabed contains precious metals. The battle over their extraction has long started. But nobody knows exactly what the consequences of deep sea mining are going to look like for the marine ecosystem. Civil society organisations took advantage of World Oceans Day to highlight the threat of overexploitation.

The Earth’s natural resources are becoming scarcer – both because much of them has already been exploited and exhausted and because territorial factors deny or restrict access to them. A relentless quest has therefore begun to secure the availability of natural resources – also for future generations. No holds are barred when it comes to new ideas.

Whereas, for example, plans to practise outer space mining are yet in their infancy, deep sea mining has already assumed very concrete forms. For the first commercial deep sea mining project is scheduled to be launched in Papua New Guinea, in the Pacific, as early as autumn 2019.

The prospects and risks of deep sea mining were one of the key topics at The Oceans between Development and Environmental Policy conference held in Berlin/Germany to mark the United Nations World Oceans Day, the 8th June 2018. The event was organised by “Brot für die Welt”, Fair Oceans and Germany’s Forum on Environment and Development.

Guests from politics, business and civil society discussed various issues and presented their different views and approaches regarding the wide range of problems concerning the world’s seas – such as the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems of the deep sea, a scientific exploration of the deep sea that is not based on economic interests as well as their exploration with a view to exploit new natural resource potentials for future generations.

Threat of “Wild West” scenario in deep sea mining

In 2011, the Canadian corporation Nautilus Minerals obtained a licence to mine deep-sea metallic mineral resources in Papua New Guinea’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). Solwara1 is the first of a number of projects aimed at exploring deep sea rock containing sulphides. “The extent to which the regional regulations are going to be guided by those adopted at international level is uncertain,” warned Kai Kaschinski of the Fair Oceans organisation.

There was a threat of the Pacific’s Exclusive Economic Zones becoming a Wild West of deep sea mining. These areas are administrated by the direct littoral states – Papua New Guinea in the case of Solwara1 – and not the International Seabed Authority (ISA).

The area in question was of particular ecological and economic importance which needed protection because of its being situated right in the middle of a coral triangle, in a zone in which small-scale fishery was practised and which contained sea mountains, marine turtles, tuna and whales. “This area is the region with the greatest level of biodiversity world-wide, and the livelihoods of around 130 million people in the Bismarck Sea depend on intact ecosystems,” Kaschinski noted.

A forward-looking solution to the growing demand for natural resources

“Deep sea mining is coming, whether we like it or not,” noted Uwe Jenisch, an honorary professor at Christian Albrechts University of Kiel/Germany, commenting on the contributions at the congress, most of which were critical of deep sea mining. Jenisch works for the German DeepSea Mining Alliance, an association of 30 companies getting ready for deep sea mining.

 “The exploitation of the sea has already reached a stage where marine mining provides 40 per cent of our oil and gas, and where we are obtaining our electricity, and of course fish, from the sea. So what speaks against marine mining?” Jenisch asked. “The logical answer is: nothing!” The areas of E-mobility, digitisation and aerospace travel were already demanding large amounts of natural resources, the scientist remarked finally.

What about sustainability?

“We as civil society question the logic behind this forecast of the future natural resource demand for industry 4.0 and information and communications technology,” Marie-Luise Abshagen of the Forum on Environment and Development stated.

 The Working Group on Deep Sea Mining, which comprises the Working Group Oceans at Forum on Environment and Development and the Natural Resources Working Group, an alliance of various NGOs, has drawn up a policy paper on deep sea mining. The economic interests of the deep sea mining protagonists clash with civil society calls for recycling, a closed loop economy and the use of domestic natural resources.

“If we really take the Sustainable Development Goals seriously, then we cannot reproduce the injustice already caused by terrestrial mining in the deep sea. Our aim has to be that of reducing the consumption of natural resources,” Abshagen said.

She also stressed that civil society should back the Solwara Warriors, an alliance of more than 20 communities and organisations across the Bismarck and Solomon Seas campaigning for a ban on deep sea mining in Papua New Guinea. The Solwara Warriors have been resisting Nautilus Minerals experimental projects too.

Björn Oriwohl of Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure backed concern over the impacts of mining on habitats in the region. “The more we damage, the greater overexploitation, the less benefit there will be – and the fewer services provided by the sea free of charge that we will be able to reckon with in the future,” Oriwohl maintained. So far, too little was known about the deep sea, too little was understood of the functions and functional relationships in the seas, and many feedback systems yet had to be explored, he added.

A possible common denominator

Resistance to deep sea mining in Papua New Guinea is growing. The economic interests in the region – including those of Russia, a Nautilus Minerals shareholder, and China, a potential buyer of metallic mineral resources that is currently building the drillship – continues to be considerable.

So we do not know whether mining will actually occur in the Bismarck Sea off Papua New Guinea. But it would be desirable to at least see all protagonists agreeing on a common denominator, the meeting concluded: an integrated maritime policy in which marine conservation takes precedence over the exploitation of the seas.

Marijke Lass, journalist, Berlin/Germany

More information:
Policy paper of actors in civil society on deep sea mining (in German)

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