By: Dahvia Hylton and Jhada Haughton
If you haven’t recently heard the term ‘deep-sea mining’, it’s likely that will change in the coming months. From the 18th of July to the 29th, some very important meetings will be held in Jamaica surrounding this very topic. Last year, a little-known legal provision called the ‘two-year rule’ was triggered in Nauru that pressures the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to begin granting companies contracts to begin deep-sea mining as early as July 2023. The rule allows for this to happen within this small time frame with whatever rules and restrictions that are in place at the time – even if there aren’t any.
With understandably growing concerns over the impact of mining on deep-sea ecosystems that have not been publicized, it begs the question among several others:
What is Deep-Sea Mining
According to The International Union for Conservation of Nature, deep sea mining, as the name suggests, is the process of extracting mineral deposits from the deep seabed. The deep seabed is any region of the seabed located 200m or more below the ocean. Mining is mainly centered around retrieving precious metals such as copper, zinc and lithium. The minerals can either be present in the sediments within the seabed or found in the form of polymetallic nodules (compact circular mounds of minerals that have precipitated out of the water over thousands of years). A lot of these materials are found in the Pacific Ocean, due to the sedimentation patterns that occur.
These metals are necessary for our smart devices and the batteries in renewable energy systems. Deep-sea mining is being heralded as the means through which we will be able to support continued transitions into renewable sources of energy.
This could ostensibly be a good thing. However since these nodules in the deep sea take millions of years to form, they are a non-renewable resource, so once it’s mined it is gone. The materials cannot be reproduced on a human timescale. Certainly not in a time frame that will allow for the flora and fauna within these regions to adapt to the absence of these resources. This leads us to our next question:
What Does This Means for Our Planet
The Ocean is the largest ecosystem on earth. It houses vast amounts of flora and fauna that can only survive in that environment. It additionally affects life on land by regulating the climate, serving as a massive carbon sink and providing livelihoods and food security for millions of people.
However, the deep sea remains vastly unexplored, even despite the fact that deep sea explorations are now possible using submersible vehicles. A lot of the information surrounding the organisms, ecology and functioning of the deep is still unknown. With this in mind, it is not hard to see why deep sea mining may prove to be the final blow sealing the fate of our oceans. Although the deep ocean may appear to be a black, lifeless void, it is teeming with life and has a horde of organisms yet to be discovered.
These organisms could be invaluable to the pharmaceutical industry, which already extracts life-saving compounds from marine organisms. For all we know, the cure for cancer could be buried in the sands of the deep, waiting to be discovered. All of these could be destroyed by mining activities. The increased turbidity from mining activities could alter the clarity of the water, disrupting visual communication between organisms for miles as they’re transported by the currents. Noise and light pollution from the machinery may also disrupt communication and migratory patterns of organisms such as whales and tuna. Entire ecosystems could collapse in the blink of an eye. Are the rewards truly worth the risk?
That risk is even far more widespread than the life that exists at those depths. The ocean serves as a carbon sink in more ways than one: carbon dioxide is dissolved into the water causing ocean acidification which as we know is a danger to our corals and results in coral bleaching, but more concerning is the amount of carbon that stands to be displaced by the raising of the seabed. The disturbance of the sediment would release large amounts of organic matter back into the water column where they can be carried away. This increases oxygen demand on the water body and can create anoxic zones depending on where they end up. Organics in water compete with aquatic fauna for oxygen. that filters up the chain as a web of ecosystem services becomes threatened.
Organic matter also contains carbon. What happens when those massive amounts of carbon are released into the water above? With the effects of ocean acidification, could this be the end of the coral reefs already hanging on by a thread? And what does the loss of such a massive carbon sink mean for the climate crisis, which has us teetering on the edge of destruction for decades?
There is truly no way to know the full extent of the effects that mining activity can have on the deep-sea ecosystems and all the interconnected hydrogeological, social and economic processes. There is more exploration and research that is necessary for us to even begin to understand the complexity that is deep-sea mining.
Why Us? Why Now?
All these considerations are a lot for any one person to contemplate. So who makes these decisions? Especially under these explicit and accelerated time frames.
The deep sea isn’t owned by any one country. Yes, there are small portions of the ocean that surround each country that is labeled as that country’s territory but the vast majority of the ocean is open space. The deliberations resulting from The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982) make it such that the marine environment is managed as a global partnership or ownership. This makes sense as we are all connected by the ocean which occupies more than 70% of our planet.
As a result of this, corporations can only get access to mine the seabed through their affiliation with a sponsoring state. The Metals Company (TMC) has Nauru and the Blue Minerals Jamaica Ltd (BMJ) has Jamaica as sponsors to their corporations. The other stipulation is that they need to be approved by the ISA to mine. While we do not know what specific requirements the ISA has for such companies, we do know that to date, all companies that applied have been approved. At the end of 2020, there had been 30 contracts granted for deep-sea mining.
But why should we care? Especially in the face of possible financial benefits?
The ISA is headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica. So while the responsibility does not fall solely on us to advocate for our planet, there is a need for us to show up and speak out at a conference taking place in our own backyard. One which, despite its location, many of us weren’t given any information on. The conference itself has a distinct lack of civil society voices; an issue that we see fit to remedy if the ocean shall truly remain as a public commons.
We also have to make it our issue because it affects our lives and livelihoods. The small Island States like Jamaica are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and environmental degradation. We do not have the resources to mount the level of accommodations we would need to adapt to a rapidly changing climate, or to protect ourselves from unending damage that environmental structures like coral reefs already prevent for us (and for free!). There is no cost that is worth our environment, but if we were to estimate what it would be to create our own systems to replace the natural ones that are forever being exploited for economic gain, that number would be in the billions, and the effect would still be underwhelming.
What makes the stakes even higher is that as an island there truly is not much inland space within which our population can take refuge as the global temperature rises along with the sea levels. (All effects that will increase drastically if carbon from the ocean adds to global warming)
Now is not the time to be doubling down on our environmental degradation and human impact. It is of much greater importance for us as an island nation to be fighting on the side of environmental preservation and against the exploitation of our ocean habitats.
What You Can Do
It can be hard to know what to do in the face of big corporations larger than yourself. The important thing to remember is that as a group we are much stronger together. So what can you do to help?
The number one thing is to get educated. This issue has been quieted for a reason, so the best way to get out from under that is to educate yourself and others about the issue. The Jamaica Climate Change Youth Council and other environmental entities like Greenpeace and The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition are launching joint education campaigns surrounding the issue so follow us on all socials @ourfootprintja and @DeepSeaConserve for updates as the situation progresses.
The very next step is to spread awareness. That’s why we are tweeting, writing, posting and talking about it. But we need you to push it along. Talk about it within your circles! Dialogue is important.
We may not have a voice for these corporations but we definitely have one when it comes to the political representatives that we elect. Call them. Write letters. We are! and we want you to join in. Let them know that we are eagerly awaiting their stance on these issues and if they will truly represent the voices of the people who have given them their positions. Don’t stop calling until they do.
Finally, joint efforts are the strongest. Sign on to our letter to the Office of the Prime Minister, and join us in protest at the meeting of the ISA. They will hear our voices!
You can put your hand up and join the movement calling for a halt to destructive deep-sea mining by visiting www.defendthedeep.org
Deep-Sea Podcast: An interview with the Secretary General of the ISA- Michael W. Lodge