Imagine the sea. The soothing ebb and flow of the tide, the crashing waves. The open ocean might at first glance seem like an endless, homogenous expanse of water but way below the surface, it’s other-worldly, even to those of us that Scuba dive. Thousands of metres down exists a magical, mysterious abyss full of strange, new creatures that haven’t even been discovered yet. So why on earth are we planning on destroying the deep seabed before we even understand it?
This year, the UN-mandated International Seabed Authority (ISA) is due to decide whether fields of nodules on the deep seabed can be commercially mined for precious resources such as manganese, copper, cobalt and nickel. The pressure to extract from international waters comes disguised as a need to innovate, as the demand for metals is set to skyrocket with the electrification of transport and the need for more batteries to store energy in our homes.
But Helen Scales, marine biologist and author of The Brilliant Abyss: True Tales of Exploring the Deep Sea, Discovering Hidden Life and Selling the Seabed, explains that the deep ocean plays a vital part in keeping the rest of the planet healthy. “The more we look down there, the more we find,” she says. “The deep sea has such an important role in biodiversity, chemical cycling, carbon sequestration.
“We simply cannot know that deep sea mining will cause less impact than mining on land does. Now, the science community is coming round to thinking we don’t yet have a clear enough picture of what the mining impacts will be,” says Scales.
Nodule extraction is not a delicate operation. It’s done using remote-operated vehicles that are much bigger than combine harvesters used on fields of wheat. Key players include a Canadian company called DeepGreen, UK Seabed Resources (a wholly owned subsidiary of military arms supplier Lockheed Martin), and Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR), a Belgian enterprise. Norway doesn’t even need permission from ISA to implement its own plans for deep sea mining as early as 2023 because the minerals and metals lie on its own extended continental shelf.
But we haven’t yet really touched the surface on the secrets of the deep seabed – from clues about how life on Earth began, to the microbes that can kill MRSA superbugs. “This is the golden age of discovery in the deep ocean – the findings are accelerating amazingly so it’s very exciting time,” explains Scales, who along with many other scientists, environmentalists and fishers is calling for a moratorium on ocean mining until more is understood about the potential impacts of ocean mineral extraction and the diversity of deep-sea life.
Matthew Gianni, once a deep-sea fisherman and now policy expert for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, warns that issuing deep sea mining licences across the abyssal plains would wipe out much of the marine life in these areas. Researchers say that the species such as deepwater sponges, corals and octopus that depend on the nodules could take millions of years to recover and even the animals living in the sediment may not recover for hundreds to thousands of years.
“Mining would open up a whole new frontier of resource extraction on a large scale,” says Gianni. “The impacts would be permanent on human timescales, there would be noise disturbance 24/7, and wastewater and sediment plumes from the ships could release toxic chemicals into the water column that could get into the food chain,” he says. It can’t be done without damaging the environment and Gianni argues that while it might be economically viable, it is not socially necessary.
And there is still scope to make mining on land much more responsible first, using and reusing precious resources more carefully within a circular economy. BMW, Samsung SDI, Google and the Volvo Group have committed to excluding ocean minerals from their supply chains and Tesla already makes lithium iron phosphate batteries without cobalt and nickel.
The seabed is also the world’s largest carbon sink and there’s a serious ‘blue carbon’ cost to some commercial fishing, let alone deep-sea mining.
According to the Marine Conservation Society, marine protected areas (MPAs) in the continental shelf store approximately 26.5 million tonnes of carbon. But even in 98 per cent of the UK’s MPAs, heavy-weighted bottom trawling gear gets dragged along the seabed like a bulldozer, disturbing the sediments and everything that inhabits it while releasing some of this carbon into the atmosphere.
Bottom trawling produces more emissions globally than air travel, scientists have found, with the UK’s emissions from bottom trawling some of the highest on Earth. But when it comes to carbon accounting, often the ocean’s contribution is overlooked and undervalued.
Scales remains hopeful that we still have the chance to safeguard our deep seabeds. Discussions are underway for a UN Global Ocean Treaty that could help protect at least 30 per cent of our seas by 2030 but in the meantime, the focus is on the seabed authority’s next steps. As Scales puts it: “There’s no other comparable system whereby natural resources are overseen by one group of people who potentially have the power to say ‘let’s not do this’. Why can’t we be ambitious and thoughtful?”
Speak up for the sea
It’s not too late to make your voice heard. Say no to deep sea mining:
Write to your MP or email the Prime Minister here, calling on the UK to support a global moratorium on deep-sea mining