There is money in sea-bed mining, but at great risk. Should we stop and think about it? asks marine biologist Diva Amon.
There are many marine species in the eastern Clarion-Clipperton zone. 90 per cent are new to science. Credit: Max Pixel
I’m on a ship 1,600 kilometres away from the nearest land. After five days we arrived from California at the middle of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Our team sends a remotely operated vehicle 4.5 kilometres down. No-one has been there before. We are deep-sea biologists and we are lucky to see new things and find new species and habitats. And this time it is no different. We see an animal like an anemone with arms three metres long, purple, pink and yellow sea cucumbers, white corals, and glass sponges like flowers.
But it makes me feel sad. It’s difficult for a marine biologist working in a place that may change for ever in the next 20 or 30 years. As we need more metals, we are looking in more remote places and this may be in the deep ocean.
There are three types of resources we can find in the deep sea: polymetallic nodules (4,000-6,000 metres deep), polymetallic sulphides (150-5,000 metres), and cobalt-rich ferromanganese-encrusted seamounts and ridges (800-2,500 metres). In areas outside national limits, already the International Seabed Authority (ISA) has given 29 leases for exploration. This is across 1.5 million square kilometres of our sea floor. It is likely there will be mining soon. The ISA plans to have exploitation regulations ready by 2020.
Our research cruise collects data and we return to our labs to work on the samples. But I feel sad. For example, we now know that there are at least 1,000 species of macrofauna and megafauna in an area the size of Hong Kong in the eastern Clarion-Clipperton Zone. 90 are new to science. Ferromanganese-encrusted seamounts support biodiversity and the rainforests of the deep ocean – corals, sponges and others, that are thousands of years old.
It is clear that there will be damage from deep-sea mining. There will be extinctions, we will lose many creatures that live in these places. It could be tens of years or millions of years before they return. Mining will also disturb the sea floor and the cause problems in other places. Water from ships will cause more problems. Other problems will come from light and noise pollution from machinery, and changes to the geochemistry of the sea floor.
And there are bigger questions: we understand very little of the possible effects on deep-ocean ecosystems that keep our planet healthy, such as climate regulation, nutrient cycling, and detoxification. Our oceans are getting stress from pollution, fishing, nutrient loading, and climate change. We do not understand the effects of these from mining but they will last a long time. But we have not really explored the deep sea. We know very little about what species live there and the effects of mining on them. This is where deep-sea scientists can help. Many of us help by collecting data and checking environmental effects.
Can we hope that the deep sea will stay as it was? Will deep-sea mining give us the minerals for a greener energy future?
Is helping one human-caused problem a good reason to perhaps create another? Should we stop deep-sea mining? As a deep-sea biologist, I don’t have the answers to those questions, but I am trying to find them.
We must continue to explore the ocean to understand it better. We must also have strong regulations to stop the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functions, and try to balance the needs of society and nature. It is so important that we look at the best scientific predictions of mining impacts and take care. If we don’t, there is a real chance that we could change our oceans before we understand them, and that would be a terrible loss for science, but most importantly, for humanity.
Diva Amon is a marine biologist and deep-sea scientist from Trinidad and Tobago. She is a Research Fellow at the Natural History Museum, London.
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