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An international group of 15 marine scientists and legal scholars published a letter on Monday warning of the dire effects that the nascent seabed mining industry could have on bottom dwelling marine life.The letter, published in Nature Geoscience, is the latest in a series of increasingly desperate pleas from marine scientists to pump the brakes on mining the seafloor until marine scientists are able to get a better idea of what the effects this industry will have on this woefully understudied area of the planet.
"Unlike on land, most of the biodiversity and ecosystem function in the deep sea is poorly understood," Cindy Dover, a professor of biological oceanography at Duke University and one of the signatories to the letter, told me via email. "We have learned that the deep sea is as exquisitely diverse as any bit of shallow marine or terrestrial environment. What we don't understand is how much we can degrade deep-sea ecosystems before we reach tipping points, where the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function affects the health of the ecosystem beyond levels that are acceptable to society."As such, Van Dover and the other signatories on the letter call for the International Seabed Authority, the UN-sanctioned regulatory body for the ocean's floor, to recognize the risk posed by deep sea mining and communicate this risk to the public at large."We ask that biodiversity loss resulting from deep-sea mining be recognized and be part of the public discourse about mining," Van Dover said. "The scientific community has been invited by the ISA to provide recommendations on responsible environmental practices for deep-sea mining. Our peer-reviewed letter responds to this invitation."
Although the deep sea (defined as anything below a depth of about 650 feet) accounts for roughly two-thirds of the Earth's surface, we know remarkably little about what goes on down there. Dozens of new species are routinely discovered during forays to the bottom of the ocean and the deep sea ecosystem isn't well understood.
Nevertheless, the deep sea has become the site of a new gold rush in recent years. The discovery of a wealth of precious minerals such as nickel and cobalt, in addition to oil and potentially lifesaving molecules have incentivized seabed mining operations to begin exploratory missions to the bottom of the ocean to start staking claims.To get an idea of how this industry is developing, the authors of the recent letter point out that in 2001 there were only six contracts for deep sea mining operations. By the end of 2017, however, there will be 27 deep sea mining contracts. Of these, 17 will be in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a region of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Central America. One of the proposed mining contracts alone covers 32,000 square miles, an area larger than the state of Maine.Although some proponents of deep sea mining argue that the effects of this industry can be offset by taking more environmentally friendly measures elsewhere, such as building artificial reefs, the authors of the letter are calling BS."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," Craig Smith, a professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii, said in a statement."This is like saving apple orchards to protect oranges," Van Dover added.For now, these contracts remain exploratory as the ISA struggles to establish a deep sea regulatory regime. But as the letter's authors rightfully worry, it will be hard to establish effective seabed regulations since so little is known about the ocean floor.
"The ISA has begun working on regional environmental protection plans that include identifying networks of Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEI) within regions of interest to contractors," Van Dover told me. "Mining and mining impacts would be excluded in these APEIs. Science-based recommendations for the design of these APEIs call for them to include representative habitats in the region."
Until these regulations are in place, however, the authors of the letter call for the ISA to acknowledge that deep sea mining will certainly be harmful to deep ocean biodiversity. According to the authors of the letter, this damage will likely be irrevocable. Even more frightening is that we'd likely never know the full extent of the damage because marine scientists won't have the opportunity to establish sufficient baseline measurements before the mining frenzy begins."I do not know if responsible seabed mining is possible, given knowledge gaps in our understanding of deep-sea biodiversity and function, and the possibility that the cost of good, science-based environmental management and monitoring may be too high at present relative to the value of the product," Van Dover said. "There are ways to fill these knowledge gaps, but they require time and investment."Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter .