Biodiversity losses from deep-sea mining are unavoidable and possibly irrevocable, an international team of 15 marine scientists, resource economists and legal scholars argue in a letter published in the journal Nature Geoscience (June 26).
The experts say the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which is responsible under the UN Law of the Sea for regulating undersea mining in areas outside national jurisdictions, must recognize this risk. They say it must also communicate the risk clearly to its member states and the public to inform discussions about whether deep-seabed mining should proceed, and if so, what standards and safeguards need to be put into place to minimize biodiversity loss.
“There is tremendous uncertainty about ecological responses to deep-sea mining,” says Cindy L. Van Dover, Harvey W. Smith Professor of Biological Oceanography at the Nicholas School. “Responsible mining needs to rely on environmental management actions that will protect deep-sea biodiversity and not on actions that are unproven or unreasonable.”
“The extraction of non-renewable resources always includes tradeoffs,” says Linwood Pendleton, International Chair in Marine Ecosystem Services at the European Institute of Marine Studies and an adjunct professor at the Nicholas School. “A serious trade-off for deep-sea mining will be an unavoidable loss of biodiversity, including many species that have yet to be discovered.”
Faced with this inevitable outcome, it’s more important than ever that we understand deep-sea ecosystems and have a good idea of what we stand to lose before mining alters the seafloor forever, says Pendleton, who also serves as a senior scholar in the Oceans and Coastal Policy Program at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. Time is of the essence, the experts stress.
“Undersea deposits of metals and rare earth elements are not yet being mined, but there has been an increase in the number of applications for mining con-tracts,” says Elva Escobar of the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Marine Sciences and Limnology. “In 2001, there were just six deep-sea mineral exploration contracts; by the end of 2017, there will be a total of 27 projects.”
Some mining proponents have argued that companies could offset the inevitable damage their activities will cause by restoring coastal ecosystems or creating new artificial offshore reefs. “But this is like saving apple orchards to protect orange groves,” Van Dover said.
“The argument that you can compensate for the loss of biological diversity in the deep sea with gains in diversity elsewhere is so ambiguous as to be scientifically meaningless,” says Craig Smith, professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Deep-sea ecosystems and species can take decades or even centuries to recover from a disturbance, if they recover at all, Van Dover notes. Deep-sea scientists and legal experts from the United States, Mexico, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Poland and Australia co-wrote the peer-reviewed correspondence with Van Dover, Pendleton, Escobar and Smith.