We Need to Regulate the Seabed Before Mining Companies Destroy It

Commercial activity on the bottom of the ocean may destroy ecosystems we don’t even know exist.

On Thursday, an international group of marine scientists published an article in Science in which they outlined the desperate need for an international effort to regulate the ocean floor, in order to preserve the deep sea's unique and largely uncharted ecosystems. The article came in response to the growing threat to these ecosystems from commercial deep sea activities, particularly deep sea mining.

The deep ocean (defined as anything below a depth of about 650 feet) accounts for roughly 65 percent of the Earth's surface, but we know startlingly little about it. Indeed, we have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the ocean floor, to say nothing of our knowledge of the lifeforms that are found thousands of feet beneath the surface. As Oregon State University ocean ecologist Andrew Thurber put it, the discovery of new species is "the name of the game" in seabed ecology, which is great for science, but troubling insofar as it demonstrates the degree of our ignorance about the deep ocean.

"The deep ocean is interesting because it's one of the great unknowns, but is also an area we know is very important to society," Thurber told me. "So it's an area that's both unknown and actively being used for many different resources."

Read More: Watch the Advent of Deep Sea Mining Unfold With this Big Data Tool

This problem is compounded by the fact that deep sea researchers are essentially in a race to explore and document these environments before they are destroyed by commercial interests. The deep ocean is home to a bevy of valuable natural resources, ranging from potentially lifesaving molecules to oil and precious minerals, which, taken together, have created a sort of gold rush.

The specter of deep sea mining has been haunting the ocean floor for decades, but only recently has the technology and economic incentive reached a point where underwater mining operations have become a realistic possibility. The first deep sea mining site, Solwara-1, is located off the coast of Papua New Guinea. It will likely begin operations in late 2017 or early 2018 to extract gold, zinc, silver and copper from the ocean floor.

Solwara is just the tip of the iceberg, however—over the past decade, more than 1 million square kilometers of seabed has been earmarked for mining operations.

Seafloor massive sulfides, which will be mined for various precious metals. Image: University of Washington

Although researchers know mining operations won't be good for deep sea ecosystems, the problem is they lack the baseline data that will allow them to determine the real impact of these operations once they begin. This lack of data makes drafting any sort of effective regulation difficult, which, in the words of UC Santa Barbara marine biologist Douglas McCauley, has turned the deep sea into something of a "wild west" with little regulatory oversight.

"Right now, there's not a whole lot of law for the deep ocean, and a lot of groups are sort of doing what they want willy nilly," McCauley told me. "But on the flipside, that also means that there is this political blank slate and we can figure out how to we want to do this right."

As the authors of the article in Science write, currently "international law and national legislation largely ignore the deep sea's critical role in the functioning and buffering of planetary systems." Although both the United Nations and the International Seabed Authority (ISA) are working on establishing deep sea regulatory regimes, the progress has been slow going.

This is largely due to the lack of communication between agencies responsible for managing different aspects the international portions of the seabed, otherwise known as the Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ). The ISA, for instance, is largely responsible for figuring out how to regulate the emerging seabed mining industry, whereas the Regional Fisheries Management Organization focuses on the fishing industries. Yet as the authors of the Science article point out, effective regulation is going to require cooperation between these organizations, and likely some sort of dedicated international agency overseen by the UN (they suggest the "International Deep-Ocean Organization" as an example).

The Atlantic Ocean. Image: Wikimedia Commons

"The conversation about mining the bottom of the ocean certainly intersects with the conversation about biodiversity futures because it's all one ecosystem," said McCauley. "We need to pull these conversations together into a governance structure that is more integrated and less fractured."

Cooperation alone won't be enough. The Science article also calls for more studies to be done on seabed ecosystems in advance of commercial activity on the seabed, as well as the deployment of monitoring tools like buoys and seafloor crawlers which can analyze the health of ocean floor ecosystems. Unfortunately, such a monitoring network would be expensive—the authors estimate it would cost between $2-3 billion to establish a permanent monitoring network, and another $300 million annually to maintain.

In other words, the authors are well aware that "deep sea ecological science is limited less by the capabilities of current ocean technologies than by their high costs."

Effectively managing the seabed will further require new and improved monitoring and enforcement tools. This will likely involve some combination of tracking devices like Deep Sea Mining Watch, which tracks mining ships all over the globe, low power drones to monitor commercial activity and big data analysis of satellite imagery which is now capable of identifying ships on the ocean surface with a resolution of around 2 feet.

Whether these advancements will come in time to preserve the seabed before it is destroyed by commercial activity remains to be seen. The scientists note that the UN is currently having a preparatory committee develop an international agreement that will be presented to the UN General Assembly for recommendations at the end of 2017. In 2018, the UN General Assembly will decide, based on those recommendations, whether to negotiate a final treaty. But by that point, the deep sea mining gold rush may already have begun.

"If we want to intelligently plan out the future of the seabed in a way that minimizes our impact and unwanted consequences, we're going to have to do it soon," said McCauley. Unlike our land development, "we have this special opportunity to not lose our understanding of the deep ocean before we change it and alter it. Second chances like this are rare in nature and we don't want to blow this one."

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