Deep-sea Mining

Deep-sea mining may irreparably harm ocean ecosystems before we even have a chance to fully study its impacts. That’s one reason the Center has taken a lead role against deep-sea mining. We’re opposing lax environmental standards, challenging a proposed phosphate mine off the coast of Mexico, and working on issues surrounding rare-metals exploration (nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese) in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico.

Prospecting corporations have long coveted the precious metals embedded in the ocean floor that could be used for electronics. This includes nickel, copper, cobalt, manganese, zinc, gold and other rare-earth metals. Other mining operations target phosphates used as fertilizer in industrial agriculture. So far companies haven’t been willing to heavily invest in such a difficult and costly undertaking, but the recent combination of advances in underwater-mining technologies and steep increases in the value of gold and other precious metals has triggered an aggressive push to mine the deep ocean floor. With an estimated $150 trillion in gold under our oceans, or nine pounds of gold for every person on Earth, 26 permits have now been issued by international authorities and countries around the world to begin preparations for undersea mining, focused mostly in the Pacific Ocean.

Life on the deep ocean floor is still a mysterious realm that scientists have only just begun to inventory. They worry that this new gold rush will do untold damage to the ocean’s food web and other complex natural systems. What mountaintop-removal coal mining has done in Appalachia, deep-sea mining has the potential to do in the Pacific Ocean — affecting the ecosystem and biodiversity in ways scientists say they don’t yet fully understand.

How It Works

Mining interests plan to use large, robotic machines to excavate the ocean floor in a way that’s similar to strip-mining on land. The materials are pumped up to the ship, while wastewater and debris are dumped into the ocean, forming large sediment clouds underwater. The slurry is then loaded onto barges and shipped to onshore processing facilities.

The problem is that deep-sea mining operations will inevitably harm sensitive underwater ecosystems. Marine life threatened by the projects we’re challenging include endangered sea turtles (loggerhead, green, leatherback, hawksbill, olive ridley and flatback), sharks (grey reef, tiger, great hammerhead, and whitetip reef), tuna (frigate, mackerel, dog-tooth, yellowfin, albacore and bigeye), cetaceans (pygmy killer whale, sperm whale, spinner dolphin and Cuvier’s beaked whale) and marine birds (Beck’s petrel and Heinroth's shearwater). The seafloor at the mining sites will be wiped clean of life and natural contours, directly affecting clams, mussels, corals, tubeworms, snails, xenophyophores, the larval supply, and basic enzymes and genetic resources.

There’s little regulatory oversight of these operations, and they’re taking place far from any public scrutiny. The International Seabed Authority issued seven new seabed-exploration permits in 2014, bringing the global total to 26, yet it doesn’t expect to have approved environment standards until late 2016 at the earliest. The legal framework is complex in international waters with some nations, including the United States, notably absent from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that established the governance structure.

Mining projects within countries’ exclusive economic zones have the potential to move quickly.  The Solwara I project off Papua New Guinea could soon become the first active commercial deep-sea mine — even before international environmental standards have been adopted. The Don Diego project proposed by U.S.-based Odyssey Marine Explorations, in the waters off of Baja California Sur, is actively working to secure the approvals needed to proceed with phosphate mining.  

Tiger shark phtoto courtesy Flickr/Kevin Bryant