Back in the 1970s, my interest in the ocean, underwater exploration and the weird and wonderful marine life that can be found under the waves had been already been spurred by the films of Jacques Cousteau recording his voyages aboard The Calypso. In particular I remember one magazine article about how in the future we would be mining manganese nodules from the bottom of the deep ocean. Then deep seabed mining was the stuff of science fiction, now it is fast becoming a reality and is a subject of enormous concern amongst deep sea scientists, environmental campaigners and coastal communities.
We all know about the environmental problems that come with mining operations on land, especially how difficult it is to contain the waste. So imagine the problems that will arise when mining operations are conducted in the deep sea in a fluid environment, where ocean currents may carry sediment and toxic pollution far from the area of operation, perhaps into important fishing grounds.
The truth is we know very little about the deep sea, its ecology and its importance. For example, deep sea vents are not only rich in minerals but are home to unique communities of creatures that have evolved to live in extreme conditions and are of interest to scientists for their genetic properties, which may have medicinal or other practical applications. Similarly deep sea research has revealed that there is a huge but little known ecosystem known as the dark biosphere under the seafloor that acts as an important carbon sink.
If seabed mining is allowed to go ahead without a comprehensive system of environmental protection in place we may be destroying species forever before they have even been scientifically described.
Over the last few years the industry has stepped up several gears as demonstrated by the rapid increase in license applications being made to the International Seabed Authority to exploit the mineral resources found in international waters. Today sees the start of a two day Deep Sea Mining Summit in London where industry and other interested players will be setting out their vision of the future of the industry. It is unlikely that many of the speakers will be pointing to the scale of the potential environmental impacts or that at present there is no system in place to protect the marine life of the high seas, despite the fact that the world’s governments have long been committed to establish a global network of marine reserves. More likely they will be talking up the advances in technology and the potential profits to be made as did UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, earlier this year when he suggested that the industry could be worth up to £40bn to the UK annually.
However, any potential investors present would do well to take notice of the growing swell of opposition to seabed mining. In the Pacific, the region where deep seabed mining is being spearheaded, community groups opposed to seabed mining are springing up and significantly The Pacific Council of Churches has voiced its strong opposition to seabed mining. At the summit activists from the Deep Sea Mining Campaign and The London Mining Network will be leafleting and drawing attention to the aspects of the industry that the most of the summit attendees would most probably like to keep hidden beneath the waves.
Richard Page is an Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace International