Digging for Answers: Are We Ready for Deep-Sea Mining?

Modern society has long-depended on extracting minerals from the Earth’s crust to manufacture a broad array of widely used products such as textiles, medical equipment, construction materials, automobiles, and computers [1]. The increase in demand for minerals has seen traditional mineral deposits slowly become depleted [2]. As a response, experts have begun searching for ore deposits in previously unmined areas, propelling the mining sector into a new era of development: deep sea mining (DSM).

Since the 1970s, ocean mining has progressively developed into an economically feasible industry and is now purported to be cheaper than on-land mining [3] [4]. It is estimated that there is more than $150 trillion worth of gold buried in the seabed globally [5]. One of the businesses looking to explore the ocean floor metal-rich mineral deposits is Nautilus Minerals Inc. – commonly referred to as Nautilus. The Canadian company is the runaway leader in this field and is close to launching its pilot project off the coast of Papua New Guinea in a bid to exploit polymetallic seafloor massive sulphide deposits. Figure 1 shows the marine areas where private companies and government organizations are staking claims. Included are the Clarion-Clipperton fracture zones, where more than 34 thousand million tons of polymetallic nodules have been reported [6].

Figure 1: Main Areas of Interest for DSM [12]

Scientists, NGOs, and governments are concerned about the potential environmental and social impacts associated with DSM. Major impacts are summarized in Table 1. It is important to remember, however, that these impacts are hypothetical: DSM has not yet been fully carried out, and the deep-sea floor is poorly understood in comparison to other marine ecosystems [7] [8]. The lack of existing knowledge on the impacts of DSM complicates the EIA process, and was highlighted in the EIS report developed by Nautilus [9]: “[…] a true matrix-type assessment of risk, likelihood and consequence for the deep seabed environment is difficult given the limits of prior experience (p.132).” Mining companies are therefore recommended to apply the precautionary principle throughout the exploitation and extraction phases.

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Poor governance of marine areas is another critical issue associated with DSM. The exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of developing countries with large mineral-rich deposits but deficient environmental policies, such as Papua New Guinea and Tonga, are usually the targets of DSM. This is believed to be a result of the International Seabed Authority’s (ISA) strict regulations and policies regarding activities in international waters in comparison to the weaker regulations within the national EEZs of developing countries [2][10]. To help fill policy gaps at national and transnational levels, some international organizations have created voluntary instruments calling for “prudent and environmentally responsible development of marine mineral resources” through specific guidelines [11].

Given the poor understanding of deep-sea ecosystems and the environmental impacts of DSM on these areas, as well as the weak regulatory framework of many developing countries, a global moratorium on seabed mining should be considered. This would allow concerned countries to establish limits to this nascent industry, develop more efficient and proactive environmental planning and development strategy, and acquire the tools necessary to ensure compliance of ocean mining projects with domestic laws and regulations.


[1] NMA. (n. d.). 40 Common Minerals and Their Uses. Retrieved March 10, 2014, from National Mining Association: http://www.nma.org/index.php/minerals-publications/40-common-minerals-and-their-uses

[2] Hoagland, P., Beaulieu, S., Tivey, M. A., Eggert, R. G., German, C., Glowka, L., & Lin, J. (2010). Deep-sea mining of seafloor massive sulfides. Marine Policy, 34(3), 728-732.

[3] Rona, P. A. (2002). Marine minerals for the 21st century. Episodes, 25(1), 2-12.

[4] Sarmiento, P. (2013, Jan. 14). Should deep-sea mining go ahead in Papua New Guinea? Retrieved March 10, 2014, from SciDev.Net: http://www.scidev.net/global/fisheries/feature/should-deep-sea-mining-go-ahead-in-papua-new-guinea-.html

[5] The Daily Catch. (2013, June 21). Is Deep Sea Mining Worth the Risk? Retrieved March. 10, 2014, from The Terramar Project: http://theterramarproject.org/thedailycatch/is-deep-sea-mining-worth-the-risk

[6] Rona, P. A. (2008). The changing vision of marine minerals. Ore Geology Reviews, 33(3), 618-666.

[7] Glover, A. G., & Smith, C. R. (2003). The deep-sea floor ecosystem: current status and prospects of anthropogenic change by the year 2025. Environmental Conservation, 30(3), 219-241.

[8] Van Dover, C. L. (2011). Mining seafloor massive sulphides and biodiversity: what is at risk?. ICES Journal of Marine Science: Journal du Conseil, 68(2), 341-348.

[9] Environmental Impact Statement, Solwara 1 Project, vol. A. Brisbane: Coffey Natural Systems Pty. Ltd. /http://www.cares.nautilusminerals.com/S; 2008.

[10] Halfar, J., & Fujita, R. M. (2002). Precautionary management of deep-sea mining. Marine Policy, 26(2), 103-106.

[11] Verlaan, P. A. (2010). The International Marine Minerals Society’s Code for Environmental Management of Marine Mining . International Marine Minerals Society . ISBA.

[12] Broad, W. (2012, July 9). The New York Times. Retrieved March 10, 2014, from A Gold Rush in the Abyss: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/10/science/vast-deposits-of-gold-and-other-ores-lure-seabed-miners.html


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