It is often said that we know more about the Moon then we do about our oceans (Heimbuch, 2012). The deep sea, a largely unexplored area of the Earth, is home to many of the world’s most unique and specialized species. Aside from its intrinsic value, the deep-sea is scientifically valuable in terms of new medical discoveries and design-inspiration from specialized species (Halfar & Fujita, 2007). This region is also economically valuable due to highly priced fish, such as the Patagonia Toothfish, which thrive in the deep-sea environment (WWF, no date).
Deep-sea mining is an activity that threatens the integrity and health of this important and unexplored ecosystem. The activities of deep-sea mining can create large sediment plumes, and dewatering of ore can cause eutrophication of shelf-waters (Halfar & Fujita, 2007). Heavy metals can also be released into the ocean waters and contaminate local fishery stocks (Steiner, 2009). The disruption to hydrothermal vent geology would eradicate the endemic ecosystems unique to those regions, and a final, but very important impact is the detriment to human health caused by the bioaccumulation of metals and toxins (Rosenbaum, 2011).
The Solwara-1 project, by Canadian owned company Nautilus Minerals Ltd, is the world’s first deep-sea mining initiative off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The project aims to mine Massive Sulphide deposits for copper and gold, near hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor (Coffey Natural Systems, 2008). The ore will be extracted by underwater remote operated vehicles, then pumped up to surface and transported via barge to a processing smelter at port.
Deep-sea mining is a newly emerging field, and therefore the environmental and social impacts of such projects are unknown as of yet. The Solwara-1 EIA was approved by the Papua New Guinea government; however certain opposition groups, such as the World Wildlife Fund, have expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of said EIA report (Peterson, 2012). According to an independent review of the Solwara-1 EIA, undertaken by the IUCN, “many risk[s] are poorly analyzed, some are not analyzed at all, and many of the baseline studies necessary to understand potential impacts have yet to be completed” (Steiner, 2009). For example, genetic variability of the deep-sea biota was not analyzed nor was there any systematic study on the impacts to pelagic communities, only benthic communities were considered (Steiner, 2009).
On the flip side of this issue, deep-sea mining has been hailed by some as an opportunity to develop economies and meet increasing demand for ore. Due to the physical nature of deep-sea deposits the ore is often ten times more concentrated then terrestrial deposits, and therefore the extraction costs and mine footprint are significantly smaller (Technology Quarterly, 2006). However, not all are convinced that these benefits outweigh the potential environmental and health impacts.
I suggest that a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) be carried out to further investigate the impacts of deep-sea mining. The WWF advocates for a moratorium on all deep-sea mining initiatives until the environmental and social impacts are fully understood and sensitive marine areas are adequately protected (Rosenbaum, 2011). In fact they state that in the context of deep-sea mining, “the current approach of dealing case by case with each [project] is a particularly inefficient use of resources” (Rosenbaum, 2011). The need for a SEA on deep-sea mining was also supported by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity at the COP11 conference (Rosenbaum, 2011). A proper SEA should investigate the actual need for deep-sea mining in Papua New Guinea, as well as alternative means of developing the Papua New Guinea economy. Finally, considering that deep-sea mining initiatives are a newly emerging technology, regulatory frameworks should be written that establish protected areas from deep-sea mining rights; define standards for deep-sea mining in terms of monitoring, mitigation, restoration, and compliance; and finally establish liability in the form of a polluter-pays principle (Rosenbaum, 2011).
Although the Solwara-1 project is currently on hold due to financing issues, a deep-sea mining SEA and proper regulatory framework are still required in Papua New Guinea (Nautilus Minerals, 2006). The Solwara-1 project has opened the floodgates to other deep-sea mining initiatives around the world and therefore the need for a proper SEA is imperative.
Heimbuch, J. (2012, July 19th). Top Ocean Researchers Head to the Last Underwater Laboratory Before it Gets Defunded. Retrieved from: http://www.treehugger.com/ocean-conservation/top-ocean-researchers-head-last-underwater-laboratory-before-defunded.html
Halfar, J. and Fujita, R. (2007). Danger of Deep-Sea Mining. Science Magazine. 316:987-988
World Wildlife Fund. (no date). Deep Sea: Importance. Retrieved from: http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/blue_planet/deep_sea/deepsea_importance/
Steiner, R. (2009). Independent Review of the Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Nautilus Minerals Solwara 1 Seabed Mining Project, Papua New Guinea. Bismarck-Solomon Seas Indigenous Peoples Council. Retrieved from: http://www.deepseaminingoutofourdepth.org/wp-content/uploads/Steiner-Independent-review-DSM1.pdf
Rosenbaum, H. (2011). Out of Our Depth: Mining the Ocean Floor in Papua New Guinea. Mining Watch Canada, CELCoR, Oxfam Australia, The Packard Foundation. Retrieved from: http://www.deepseaminingoutofourdepth.org/wp-content/uploads/Out-Of-Our-Depth-low-res.pdf
Coffey Natural Systems Pty Ltd. (2008). Executive Summary of the Solwara 1 Environmental Impact Assessment for Nautilus Minerals Niugini Limited.
Peterson, S. (2012). World Wildlife Fund position paper: Deep-Sea Mining. Retrieved from: http://awsassets.wwf.org.za/downloads/wwf_sa_deep_sea_mining_position_oct_2012.pdf
Technology Quarterly. (2006). Treasure on the Ocean Floor. The Economist. Retrieved from: http://www.economist.com/node/8312172
Nautilus Minerals. (2006). Solwara 1 Project: High Grade Copper and Gold. Retrieved from: http://www.nautilusminerals.com/s/Projects-Solwara.asp