Out of our depth? The dangers of deep-sea mining

8th June 2020

While biodiversity loss is recognised as a major global environmental problem, the importance of biodiversity in the deep ocean merits clarification, particularly given that most species remain undiscovered or unidentified. Deep-sea biodiversity is valued both for the ecosystem services it provides and for underpinning the health of the oceans by enabling a range of ecological and evolutionary functions that are viewed as necessary to productive, sustainable ecosystems.

Deep-sea mining is a new frontier for extraction of the Earth’s natural resources, and the deep sea also represents an important new frontier for conservation. Efforts are under way to establish protection for biodiversity in the high seas, but at the same time countries are rushing to establish territorial rights to undersea resources as a key part of “Blue Economy” agendas – which seek to realise the full economic potential of the ocean. A big part of the argument for progressing deep-sea mining is focused on critical minerals, used in smart phones, computers and energy storage. Counterarguments need to take into account projections for efficient and alternative technologies and the reuse of metals already abstracted.

Hotspots for biodiversity in the deep sea are often associated with deposits of rare metals and minerals. These minerals (such as cobalt, zinc and manganese) are sought after for use in modern technology and electronics, resulting in an escalation of efforts to extract these deposits, using new mining machinery to remove metallic nodules from the ocean floor and tear up the seabed to retrieve mineral crusts of fragile hydrothermal vents and sea mounts.

FFI published a major report in March 2020, with a foreword by FFI vice-president Sir David Attenborough, who joins FFI in calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. The report reviewed the current extent of knowledge about the potential impacts of such activities, and has revealed profoundly worrying outcomes for deep-sea life, wider ocean biodiversity, key oceanic processes and ultimately on the power of the ocean to mitigate climate change. We must be extremely cautious in any measures that disrupt these sensitive and vital oceanic processes.

In October 2020, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) meets in Kingston, Jamaica to finalise the regulations and policies that provide the framework to permit deep seabed mining. A number of companies are manoeuvring within the ISA and with small island states to secure approval to mine – potentially short-circuiting necessary due diligence, riding roughshod over the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The rushed development of regulations, often without inclusive and transparent consultation and without full consideration of the scientific evidence, could open the floodgates to deep-sea exploitation and mining.

A rare deep-sea cirrate octopod (Grimpoteuthis sp.) uses its fins on either side of its head to gracefully propel itself through the water column around D2. The scientists observed some damage on the arm and fin. All images credit: NOAA