For decades scientists have raised concerns about deep sea mining, an attractive option of cash-strapped tiny nations in the South Pacific where land is scarce, the seas are vast, and climate change a very real threat.
But the scientific fears seem to be confirmed by a report commissioned by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign and MiningWatch Canada which warns of the dangers posed to Pacific Island economies, livelihoods and cultures and urges a moratorium.
The report found the impact of “mining deep sea polymetallic nodules would be extensive, severe and last for generations, causing essentially irreversible species loss and ecosystem degradation.”
Polymetallic nodules are rock concretions on the sea bed that are formed by layers of iron and manganese hydroxides around a core. Nodules found in vast quantities contain cobalt, nickel, copper, manganese that are used in batteries.
The Pacific Ocean covers 30 percent of the earth’s surface and among miners, it is the next frontier with companies and investors lining up for the hard-to-get mineral deposits.
The comprehensive 52-page report, titled “Predicting the Impacts of Mining Deep Sea Polymetallic Nodules in the Pacific Ocean,” added: “The interconnected nature of the ocean means that impacts would be felt region wide.”
That has foreign policy implications for Australia and New Zealand and states including the Cook Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, Tonga, Papua New Guinea and Tuvalu, which are quick to accept aid from Canberra and Wellington but get their hackles up when told what to do.
Pacific Island states are among the sponsors of companies exploring the vast Clarion Clipperton Zone, which covers 4,500 kilometers between Kiribati and Mexico through the UN-tasked International Seabed Authority (ISA) which has issued 30 international exploration licenses.
Of those, 25 are in the Pacific Ocean and 18 of those in the Clarion Clipperton Zone.
Rare and endangered species of marine life like whale sharks, sperm whales, and leatherback turtles are at risk from metal toxicity caused by waste disposal. Also under potential threat are commercial fish catches like tuna.
The report says the stakes are high, risking irreversible damage for the many who rely on the ocean for their livelihoods. The report notes “the costs of deep sea nodule mining in the Pacific Ocean are likely to outweigh the asserted but unsubstantiated benefits.”
The report cited Papua New Guinea’s experience. The country lost $120 million after a promising deep sea mining project went belly up with the bankruptcy of Nautilus Minerals last year.
“Expectations that nodule mining would generate social and economic gains for Pacific island economies are based on conjecture. The impacts of mining on communities and people’s health are uncertain and require rigorous independent studies,” the report said.
The report was based on a scientific consensus of 250 peer reviewed scientific and other related articles which are behind calls for a moratorium, in order to allow further studies.
Helen Rosenbaum, coordinator of the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, said there was strong opposition from Pacific regional and international civil society groups to deep sea mining and that claims by companies regarding economic benefits were unsubstantiated.
“Already millions of square kilometers of deep sea bed are under exploration licence and the international seabed authority is under pressure to finalize regulations for mining – despite the mammoth uncertainties surrounding impacts and lack of informed debate,” she said.
Deep sea mining is an issue that could dominate the Pacific island agenda in the years to come, with leaders driven by short-term political and economic gain siding with miners out to make a buck who will no doubt face fierce resistance from the scientific and environmental community.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt