Canada bans deep-sea mining as concerns mount over risk to marine life

Seafloor with apparent mineral deposits, which are targets for deep-sea mining
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Canada announced a moratorium on deep-sea mining in its domestic waters on 9 February. The country’s move came just days ahead of the release of a paper on the subject. It warned that deep sea mining could pose a “significant risk to ocean ecosystems”, including to endangered species like blue whales.

In the face of the “long lasting and irreversible” impacts such mining could have, the paper’s authors called for an “urgent assessment” of the dangers.

A deeply controversial new sector

Deep-sea mining is a highly controversial emerging sector that hopes to scour the seabed for minerals. Increasingly, companies are pushing to mine the seafloor. This is in order to cash in on the demand for metals to power batteries, such as for electric cars.

The commercial industry is not yet up and running, with International Seabed Authority (ISA) still to put international regulations in place to govern the practice. Testing of the mining technologies, however, is already underway in some places.

The ISA, which is an intergovernmental body, is amid deliberations on the regulatory framework. But in 2021, the small island nation of Nauru triggered what’s called a two-year-rule at the ISA. As Mongabay explained, this rule binds nation state signatories to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to consider permits for deep-sea mining.

In other words, Nauru’s triggering of the rule could see countries green light such commercial exploitation soon. This could happen as early as July this year, regardless of whether the ISA has regulations in place.

Demands for pause on deep-sea mining

At the 2022 UN Ocean Conference in Portugal, the Pacific island nation of Palau, along with Samoa and Fiji, launched an alliance that called for a 10-year moratorium on any rollout of deep-sea mining. At the time, Palau’s president Surangel Whipps Jr. said:

Read on...

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Deep-sea mining compromises the integrity of our ocean habitat that supports marine biodiversity and contributes to mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Separately, Costa Rica, France, and Panama are among other countries that have called for a pause on deep-sea mining. Additionally, France’s parliament voted in January to ban such mining in domestic waters. Canada’s confirmation of a domestic ban follows hot on the heels of this.

As the Narwhal reported, the minister of natural resources Jonathan Wilkinson indicated that deep-sea mining in domestic waters should not happen until the country has a “rigorous regulatory structure” in place. It does not have this structure currently, according to the publication, which means he “effectively confirmed a moratorium in domestic waters”.

In a written statement, Wilkinson and Joyce Murray, the minister for fisheries and oceans, failed to call for an international moratorium on deep-sea mining. Rather, they pointed to the importance of securing the following provisions before any mining takes place:

a rigorous regulatory structure, applying precautionary and ecosystem-based approaches, using science-based and transparent management, and ensuring effective compliance with a robust inspection mechanism.

One of the most prominent private companies set on mining the seafloor is Canadian firm The Metals Company, which prior to a merger was called DeepGreen. It is one of three private firms, along with a number of state-owned companies, that the ISA had issued exploratory contracts to by 2020, the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) has explained.

Mining could do untold damage

The DSCC has also called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. Over 700 marine science and policy experts from multiple countries have done so too. In a statement, those experts warned that the lack of scientific understanding of deep-sea ecosystems and species means that:

the potential risks of deep-sea mining to deep-ocean biodiversity, ecosystems and functioning, as well as human well-being, cannot be fully understood.

The new paper by scientists from the University of Exeter and Greenpeace Research Laboratories offers a similar warning. It says that urgent research is necessary to assess the threats from such mining.

In particular, the paper focuses on the impact of deep-sea mining on marine mammals, such as whales, dolphins, and porpoises. This is an understudied area, as most impact assessments so far have focused on species who live on the seabed.

The paper focuses on the target sites for mining and how these overlap with the habitat of cetaceans, with particular attention on the Pacific Ocean.

It spotlights the impact of noise and disturbance from mining for the mammals. The production and detection of sound is critical for their navigation and communication, the paper notes. The noise from mining could have major impacts in this regard, such as masking calls between mothers and calves and risking their separation. It could also disrupt their feeding and cause behaviour change. Dr Kirsten Thompson, of the University of Exeter, explained:

Imagine if your neighbourhood was suddenly disrupted by construction work that goes on 24/7, your life would change dramatically. Your mental health would be compromised, you might change your behaviour to escape from it. It’s no different for whales or dolphins

The journal Frontiers in Marine Science published the paper.

Window to secure moratorium is closing fast

Despite the risks and lack of understanding about the scope of the dangers, the window to secure consensus on an international moratorium on deep-sea mining is closing fast. Greenpeace International campaigner Louisa Casson said:

Deep sea mining companies are determined to start plundering the oceans, despite little research about the impacts this industry would have on whales, dolphins and other species. Deep sea mining could damage the oceans in ways we do not fully understand – and at the expense of species like blue whales that have been a focus of conservation efforts for many years. Governments cannot uphold their commitments to protect the oceans if they allow deep sea mining to start

The ISA will meet in March and July in Jamaica for more negotiations on deep-sea mining. For the many concerned about the danger such commercial exploitation of the ocean poses – including experts, organisations, nations and members of the public – a decision by the ISA to establish an international moratorium would be very welcome indeed.

Featured image via ROV KIEL 6000, GEOMAR / Wikimedia, cropped to 770×403, licensed under CC BY 4.0

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