What hope is there for our oceans?

“All life on Earth depends on healthy, abundant oceans.”

So said Sam Waterston, Chair of Oceana, this week. And yet…the bad news keeps coming. When are our oceans going to get a break? As if the failure to sign a Global Ocean Treaty in New York this summer was not bad enough, the threat of deep sea mining looms suddenly darker and closer. And yet there are glimmers of hope…The hope that I see (for most of our climate change and environmental concerns) is in youth activism. See below for details of an online event tomorrow, which I think we should all tune into.

See below for more details…

On a rainy Monday in Kingston, I learned that deep sea mining could begin in the Pacific very soon – even possibly later this month. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) has granted permission to Nauru Oceans Resources Incorporated (NORI), a subsidiary of The Metals Company (TMC) to begin exploratory mining in the Clarion Clipperton Zone between Hawai’i and Mexico. This initial mining test phase will continue until the end of the year, after which will follow “NORI’s application to the ISA for an exploitation contract,” according to TMC.

Greenpeace demands protection of global oceans during International Seabed Authority meeting in Kingston, Jamaica. (Photo: Greenpeace)

The ISA is a rather strange and mysterious entity. Although under the umbrella of the United Nations, it seems to suffer from a considerable lack of transparency. It is headquartered in this city of Kingston, Jamaica, yet many Jamaicans are completely unaware of its existence, or when it is meeting – not surprisingly. Media access to meetings is extremely limited. The ISA has also apparently been cultivating rather cozy relationships with companies like TMC; one New York Times (NYT) article sheds a rather unflattering light on this.

Mesophotic reef. Video grab taken at 100 meters depth in the Amazon Reef. Mesophotic coral reef is characterised by the presence of both light dependent coral and algae, and organisms that can be found in water with low light penetration.

For some background too, here’s an earlier NYT article, Treasure and Turmoil in the Deep Sea, dated two years ago and written by two ocean scientists. Describing the process by which mining ships throw out “plumes” of toxins back into the sea, the authors assert:

As we and our colleagues noted recently in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, mining will have pronounced and debilitating impacts that will be felt not just on the seabed but also throughout the deep water column, which extends from about 600 feet below the surface to the seafloor, where the extraction takes place…

Based on predicted discharge rates, a single mining ship will release between two million and 3.5 million cubic feet of effluent every day, enough to fill a fleet of tanker trucks 15 miles long. Now imagine this process running continuously for 30 years — the lifetime of a mining lease. Most important, these sediment plumes will not respect the neat boundaries defined by a permit. Regulatory buffer zones set up around the Cook Islands, for example, extend only 50 nautical miles — insufficient to protect their reefs, fisheries and tourism from these expanding sediments, which are projected to travel hundreds of miles.

The article adds that it is indigenous and small island inhabitants who will suffer most from the pollution, created by companies based in the USA, Asia and Europe – and in the case of TMC, Canada. Who said colonialism is a thing of the past? It’s alive and well.

‘No Deep Sea Mining’ Banner on the Greenpeace ship the Esperanza, in Kingston, Jamaica, in 2019.

Here is what Greenpeace USA has to say (if you click on the highlighted links, you can find out more details on this matter):

Greenpeace USA project lead on deep sea mining, Arlo Hemphill, said:

“This is a troubling development which brings us even closer to the launch of the commercial deep sea mining industry. It is a threat to the ocean, home to over 90% of life on earth, and one of our greatest allies in the fight against climate change. Despite TMC’s repeated callous and erroneous dismissal of the impact the deep sea mining industry would likely have on people and the planet, many scientists have warned that it could result in an irreversible loss of biodiversity and could threaten other benefits to humanity, including critical carbon sinks, future medicine, and international fisheries for tuna and other species.” 

Recent reporting from the New York Times shows that TMC, one of the most ardent proponents of deep-sea mining and its predecessors, cultivated a 15-year-long relationship with the ISA, which it has levied to gain a competitive edge in its mining ambitions. This includes preferential access to information that allowed it to gain control over some of the most valuable seabed tracts for future mining. They also reportedly had unprecedented access to international delegates as they debated agenda items, including the firm’s request for the authority to sign off on a plan to test mining equipment. The ISA’s latest authorization to NORI for exploratory mining is the very concrete and dramatic result of TMC’s lobbying efforts and ISA’s complacency. 

Delegates at an International Seabed Authority meeting in Kingston. (Photo: Lionel Rookwood/Jamaica Observer)

The cronyism between the ISA and TMC raises serious questions about the ability of that body to execute its mandate of managing ocean resources for the benefit of all humankind.

Hemphill continued:  

“The ISA was set up by the United Nations with the purpose of regulating the international seabed, with a mandate to protect it. Instead, they are now enabling mining of the critically important international seafloor.  The ISA has allocated roughly 200,000 square miles of seabed — larger than the size of California — to developing nations to do exploratory work in the reserved areas, with nearly half of that space now under the effective control of TMC.” 

ISA’s Legal and Technical Commission, which approved this mining pilot,  includes persons working for mining contractors and meets entirely behind closed doors, allowing no room for civil society to hold them to account. The ISA has regularly faced criticisms of a lack of transparencyaccountability, and inclusivity and for its close relationship with prospective deep sea mining companies

(End of Greenpeace USA release).

Side note: Exactly what constitutes the “deep sea”? Here is a description from the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition that I think is rather useful:

The deep sea, often defined as the water column and seabed below 200 meters in depth, occupies 90% of the marine environment and is the largest biome on the planet. It functions as the regulatory body of the entire biosphere, buffering biogeochemical circulation, regenerating nutrients and hosting infinitely rich biodiversity, making it essential to life on Earth. The key deep-sea habitats are the abyssal plains, hydrothermal vents and cold seeps, cold-water corals, seamounts (underwater mountains) and the deep-water column. These all have distinct faunas with widely divergent ecological and life history characteristics. Most deep-sea species have low productivity and are extremely vulnerable to human disturbance. This vulnerability is recognized in United Nations resolutions and regulations, requiring that it be protected from harmful fishing activities.

Spanning both the deep-seabed area and continental shelves within national jurisdiction, the deep sea is the most difficult area on Earth to access and one of the hardest to manage. Its unique, extreme and three-dimensional environment requires specialized approaches.

Greenpeace Aotearoa seabed mining campaigner, James Hita, said: 

“This latest decision from the ISA will have come as a shock to civil society who were shut out of the decision-making process, highlighting a lack of transparency from the authority. For decades, Pacific peoples have been pushed aside and excluded from decision-making processes in their own territories. Deep sea mining is yet another example of colonial forces exploiting Pacific land and seas without regard to people’s way of life, food sources, and spiritual connection to the ocean. 

“Right now people across the Pacific are taking a stand, calling for a halt to deep sea mining. Civil society, environmentalists, and a growing alliance of Pacific nations are urging government leaders to stand on the right side of history and stop deep sea mining in its tracks. We must stand in solidarity with our Pacific neighbors and put a lid on this destructive industry to preserve ocean health for future generations.” 

Please sign and share their petition to the New Zealand Government here (you can sign it from anywhere in the world). Greenpeace is urging world leaders to step in and, at the very least, put in place a moratorium on deep sea mining to protect the ocean. The Sustainable Ocean Alliance also has an urgent letter – it will take you two minutes to sign and share.

A vivid infographic from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) showing the many negative impacts of deep sea mining.

The NYT article concludes:

Historically the deep sea has been considered remote and largely devoid of life, and to have an inexhaustible capacity to absorb our pollution. In reality, these deep water ecosystems are fragile, diverse and connected to us. Mining operations must reduce their impact on the whole of the ocean and not just the seafloor. The dazzling treasure of oceanic biodiversity has unfathomable value as well.

So – what can be done? Where to go now? The ocean is crying out for help and support, while political and business leaders in the Caribbean talk a great deal about the Blue Economy (which cannot/must not include deep sea mining!) CARICOM is silent on the topic of deep sea mining, it appears.

But I mentioned “hope.” Did you know that from a survey in eight languages, disseminated by the Sustainable Ocean Alliance (SOA), there were 1,050 responses from over 60 countries. From the total responses, the SOA found that 85% of youth respondents do not support deep sea mining taking place in the ocean. 

So tomorrow, why don’t you join the organisation’s Youth Policy Advisory Council (currently chaired by Dr. Elle Wibisono, a fishery scientist and science communicator) for the launch of a Youth Alliance for a Deep Sea Mining Moratorium, at 12:00 noon Jamaica time (1:00 p.m. EST). Register at this link to join the discussion, which will include (I am pleased to say!) Dahvia Hylton of the Jamaica Climate Change Youth Council (@ourfootprintja). Huge kudos to the young Jamaicans, who have stayed focused on these critical issues.

We are in a climate crisis. All tied up with this is an ocean crisis. It’s all connected.

As Mr. Waterston said, all life depends on it. That includes us.

Wonders of the deep sea. Photo credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Gulf of Mexico 2012 Expedition.

2 thoughts on “What hope is there for our oceans?

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