As pressure mounts to extract minerals from the deep sea, a growing group of scientists is calling attention to the gap between mining momentum and scientific know-how.
Dozens of mining projects have been proposed, but the regulatory and scientific framework to evaluate these projects is still preliminary, said Cindy Van Dover, a deep-sea biologist at Duke University. She spoke Sunday at a panel discussion on deep-sea resource challenges at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.
“We can’t fix the deep sea if we mess it up, so we need to act quickly. We need to act wisely,” Van Dover said. “The most effective time to do environmental management is before mining begins.”
Numerous factors are contributing to the pending boom, said Lisa Levin, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who also spoke Sunday.
Increasing demand for phosphate-based fertilizers has spurred exploration of deposits near Namibia and Mexico. Manufacters of electronics and hybrid-vehicle batteries need new supplies of minerals including zinc, manganese, cobalt and lanthanum.
In addition, advances in mining techniques have increased the profitability of deep-sea projects, Levin said. “Unfortunately, our knowledge of deep-sea ecosystems and biodiversity hasn’t kept up with the growth of human activities.”
The deep sea isn’t a complete mystery, but research has been hampered by cost and technological challenges, the researchers said Sunday. They highlighted several underwater communities that are vulnerable to human disturbances including seamounts, or underwater mountains, that support fish populations and slow-growing cold-water coral reefs. In addition, manganese nodules—hard clumps of iron and manganese hydroxides—take millennia to develop. The effects of climate change, such as increased acidification, could make deep-sea ecosystems more vulnerable.
Seafloor restoration is in its infancy, however, wrote Van Dover and colleagues in a February review in Marine Policy. The study highlighted an effort to restore the Darwin Mounds, a cold-water coral reef off the coast of Scotland hurt by recent bottom trawling.
Scientists and policymakers need to pick up the pace, a team of leading scholars wrote in a Jan. 23 Nature commentary. By 2015, the United Nations should either create a new body to protect oceanic ecosystems or expand the authority of the International Seabed Authority, they said. The ISA, created in 2004 and based in Jamaica, only regulates the sea floor in international waters, but to shore.
Ecosystems within national waters—generally less than 200 miles from shore—are also at risk, particularly in less developed countries such as Fiji, said Linwood Pendleton, a Duke economist and co-author of the commentary who also attended the meeting.
And although mining is particularly problematic, other activities such as deep-sea trawling, dumping of industrial or chemical waste and even scientific research can damage the delicate ecosystems, the researchers said.
A jumble of national and international agencies and agreements governs other sectors such as fishing and shipping.
Therefore, comprehensive, enforceable regulations are needed to protect entire ecosystems from all potential threats, the researchers said Sunday.
In particular, researchers need to develop a set of principles to pit the economic value of a proposed project against its environmental cost and consider potential mitigation measures, similar to current land-based environmental reviews, according to Pendleton.
“If we are going to extract these minerals, how are we going to do it with the least damage to the environment,” Levin said.
Any thorough analysis must also pin a value on environmental goods such as fish nursery habitat and carbon sequestration, she said.
The first major mining project may be near Papua New Guinea, although it is currently on hold. Since 1997, Toronto-based Nautilus Minerals has been exploring the region’s deep-sea sulfide deposits and is planning to begin extracting copper, gold and zinc, according to Samantha Smith, a spokesperson for Nautilus Minerals who also attended the conference.