Jamaica is an island of many souls. Edgy, urgent and laid back all at once, this patch of land nestled in the Caribbean Sea, the home of Bob Marley and Usain Bolt is also the professed birthplace of many famous cultural exports including rum, pirates and reggae.
Less well known is the fact that it is the home of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an autonomous UN Agency set up, in its own words, “for the benefit of humankind,” to look after the seabed and ocean floor. Twice a year, officials from the governments of 168 nations descend on Kingston to participate in the deliberations and decision making of the ISA.
The ISA was established to uphold the fundamental principles of the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea, which at its heart is meant to safeguard and steward effective protection for the marine environment. The Law of the Sea Convention requires a precautionary approach that takes into account the consequences of any activities that could compromise the health and functioning of ocean ecosystems.
The ISA on the other hand is specifically focused on natural resources found on and under the seabed. Indeed, part of its mandate – which sits, rather contrarily, alongside protection of the seabed – is to administer the resources that sit on and under the ocean floor.
These resources include many minerals that are commonly used in electronics and other consumer goods, such as polymetallic manganese-rich nodules, found mainly in the Pacific and Indian Oceans; cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts; and copper-rich sulphides that are formed at the incredibly hot hydrothermal vents found along ocean plate boundaries on the sea floor.
However, the ethical and scientific code underpinning the potential exploitation of these minerals has become a matter for interpretation – and growing contention. At the heart of the debate is a tug-of-war about the short-term vs long-term value of exploiting nature’s resources.
The living creatures found in the ocean are essential for maintaining healthy marine ecosystems that support all life on earth. Our oceans produce more than 50% of the world’s oxygen (perhaps as much as 85%) and absorb more than 60% of our carbon emissions. They also provide the main source of protein for around one billion people.
The science is increasingly clear: compromising healthy marine ecosystems would have devastating consequences for the planet and all life on it, including human life.
The eyes of ISA, however, appear to have shifted from being stewards of the ocean’s resources to advocates of extraction – and those currently in positions of power in the ISA are trying their utmost to get things moving as quickly as possible. There are a number of nation states, often sponsoring private sector ‘contractors’, who are racing to get their hands on the deep ocean’s minerals. At a critical time for the global environment, governments should be making efforts to reduce use of and demand for resources. They should be focused on developing a circular economy where materials are reused and recycled as many times as possible.
Little is known about deep ocean ecosystems. How are these minerals formed? Are they biochemical, geochemical, biogeochemical in origin? What we do know is that the deep seas are incredibly complex and biodiverse. There are more species per square metre on the ocean seabed than in a tropical forest. These creatures are highly sensitive, very slow growing and ultra-long living. A polymetallic nodule is grown by micro-organisms over tens of millions of years. The copper and nickel forming at hydrothermal vents were formed during the mineralisation of bedrock over millions of years. Disrupting these systems will be disrupting the geological, chemical and biological processes of Earth and ocean systems.
The growing consensus among marine scientists is that at any deep seabed mining will systematically deplete resources and damage or remove fundamental elements of ecosystems and ecosystem functions. Impacts will include permanent loss of habitat and marine biodiversity, the creation of large sediment plumes that can smother and kill marine organisms, and may disrupt fisheries millions rely on for food and livelihoods. How deep sea mining will affect the ocean’s ability to lock away carbon and methane is another unknown, as is how pollutants and tailings might disperse through the ocean.
The scale of potential damage is unknown and hard to predict because our understanding of deep-sea marine life – and how this connects with the wider ocean system as a whole – remains limited. Also unknown is the extent to which an ecosystem will recover when mining ceases, or how long it would take. Deep-sea species are inherently vulnerable to environmental change and in all likelihood the impacts will be permanent and irreversible. The costs of the damage caused by deep seabed mining will certainly far out-weigh the benefits.
All of this evidence points in the clear direction of utmost caution. FFI is therefore calling for a moratorium on deep seabed mining. We will be working with the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, IUCN, Deep Ocean Science Initiative, numerous countries and academic institutions, individuals and advocates to ensure that we do not destroy our common ocean heritage and that the final frontier of deep sea biodiversity is preserved for the benefit of all life on Earth.