New gold rush could have alarming impact on marine ecosystem

 

Ongoing moves by mining companies from across the globe to cash in on mineral deposits hidden in the world’s seas could have an alarming effect on both the environment and the world’s fishing industry.

Next year, a group of Japanese companies and government agencies will start mining minerals at a site 1,000 miles southwest of Tokyo — and one mile beneath the ocean’s surface, Bloomberg reports. It will be the first large-scale test of whether mineral deposits can be mined commercially from the seafloor.

The seafloor is home to priceless deposits of minerals such as gold, copper and cobalt. Though these developments bode well for miners and commodity speculators, experts warn that they pose some alarming challenges for the marine environment — and the economies that depend on it.

Scientists have known that rich deposits of minerals could be found in metallic nodules strewn like stones across the deep seabed since the 1960s. In 1977, researchers discovered hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, along with some of the richest ore bodies in the world.

In both cases, though, slumping commodity prices and high extraction costs doomed exploitation efforts. And as China’s economy picked up earlier this decade, and demand for commodities surged, the search for alternative sources of raw materials gained steam.

Resource-poor Japan resuscitated its interest in seabed mining. China started building its own underwater mining capabilities, including a proposed partnership with India. Between 1984 and 2011, the International Seabed Authority — which oversees seabed mining under a United Nations convention — issued just six exploration permits.

Since 2011, it has issued 21, covering nearly 400,000 square miles of ocean floor that could one day be mined. Experts ay that though exploration is not disruptive to the environment, seabed mining will be as the machines needed to carry out the process are harmful to aquatic life.

Last year, New Zealand denied a permit to mine the seabed off its coast after the seafood industry argued that it could deposit 45 million tons of sediment into its fisheries each year — fisheries that help feed people around world.

The deep sea also plays a crucial role in regulating the climate by serving as a giant carbon sink.

Craig Smith, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii, recently speculated that seabed mining “will probably have the largest footprint of any single human activity on the planet.” The key word there is “probably.” As Smith and others point out, scientific knowledge of the seafloor is thin. That has begun to change as regulators and mining companies sponsor environmental reviews. But that research is moving slowly in light of what looks like a looming gold rush.

Fortunately, the International Seabed Authority has yet to issue its first permit to actually mine a claim. In fact, it only issued the first draft of its mining regulations last month, and they’ll likely be under review for years. But the ISA can only adjudicate claims in international waters. Territorial projects, such as Japan’s, can proceed according to local law, regardless of the methods used or their potential effects on fisheries.

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