Greenpeace and Seabed Authority fight over ocean protection

Hercules captured this image of a deep-sea jelly fish, possibly Poralia rufescens, undulating several metres above the seafloor just south of the IMAX vent at Lost City. Atlantic Ocean, Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Credit: NOAA/OAR/OER; The Lost City
Hercules captured this image of a deep-sea jelly fish, possibly Poralia rufescens, undulating several metres above the seafloor just south of the IMAX vent at Lost City. Atlantic Ocean, Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Credit: NOAA/OAR/OER; The Lost City

The world’s oceans could face severe and irreversible harm unless tighter environmental safeguards are in place that protect them from the ravages of deep sea mining, warns a new international report, In Deep Water, released by Greenpeace. The report provides an overview of the environmental risks posed by deep sea mining and 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 report casts a spotlight on the failings of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the UN body responsible for regulating the deep sea mining industry, which is prioritising development of the deep sea mining industry over robust protection.

“The ISA is not fit for purpose to protect our oceans. It is more concerned with promoting the interests of the deep sea mining industry and lobbying against a strong Global Ocean Treaty”, said Louisa Casson, ocean campaigner at Greenpeace.

The Greenpeace report cites scientists, governments, environmentalists and even 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. As companies queue up to extract metals and minerals from the ocean floor, the report reveals damning evidence proving that the mining industry too are aware of the risks and that their activities could result in the extinction of species that form the first rung of the food chain. It also explains how deep sea mining could drive the climate emergency by disrupting blue carbon stores in sea floor sediments, and sheds light on how weak and ineffective ocean governance is placing corporate interests above marine protection.

The UK government has recognised some of these threats despite holding licences to exploit more of the international seabed than any government apart from China. The report highlights how the UK is among a number of governments positioning themselves as leaders on marine protection while simultaneously investing in deep sea mining.

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 km2 – five times the surface area of the UK.

Reaction from the industry

Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR), a subsidiary of DEME, has published a statement, saying deep sea mining is vital to fight climate change: “A moratorium on deep sea mining would lead to a standstill of scientific deep-sea research. Only by intensifying research, we learn what we must protect. The legislation under development includes high requirements in terms of environmental protection. No exploitation can take place without an environmental impact statement assessing the different risks and opportunities. The precautionary approach is also included in the legislative framework and has resulted in the progressive, step-by-step approach of GSR.”

“GSR endorses responsible exploitation of polymetallic nodules for the simple reason that these nodules are multi-metallic, and therefore the CO2 emissions per extracted kilogram of metal are much lower. Nodules contain four metals: nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese. These are precisely the metals we need to fight climate change. The remainder of the nodule consists of sand. These four metals never appear combined in terrestrial deposits, which leads to the imperative exploitation of three different mines.”

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) commented saying, the report “regrettably contains a series of inaccurate elements and factual mistakes, particularly in relation to the existing legal regime set up by international law, ISA wishes to make a number of corrections to the report”. You can find the corrections here.