Eminent scientist calls for immediate halt to deep seabed mining plans

Words and pictures by Imma Perfetto.

SYDNEY: March 30: An internationally respected marine scientist has called for an immediate halt, or at the very least a slowdown, in global plans to mine the deep seabeds, saying the risk is too high until proper scientific analysis has been completed.

Speaking at the annual Blue Solutions Summit in Sydney, United Nations scientist Dr Sandor Mulsow, a marine biogeochemist and expert in deep seabed mining, said: “…explore to protect first.”

The half day conference at the Maritime Museum included researchers, business leaders, entrepreneurs, and marketers and was aimed at bringing awareness to critical issues facing the oceans, while showcasing best practices in business.

Mulsow, former Head of the Office of Environmental Management and Mineral Resources at the International Seabed Authority, is raising awareness of the dire need to slow down, or better yet completely halt, the commencement of deep seabed mining.

“Independent research, not linked to the contractor, that’s something that we need to do,” Mulsow told Cosmos at the event.

“The model should be to explore to protect, not explore to exploit. If we manage to explore to protect, maybe in 100 years we might be able to intervene without destroying [the deep seabed environment].

“But we need to explore to protect first and that has not been done.”

What is deep seabed mining?

Deep seabed mining involves scouring the ocean floor, in areas more than 200 metres below sea level, to retrieve deposits of minerals such as copper, nickel, manganese, cobalt, zinc, silver, gold, and other rare earth elements.

The global demand for these minerals is rising due to the increasing use of smartphones, batteries, and renewable energy – like wind turbines and solar panels.

The key word is “deep.” This kind of mining occurs in international waters, which do not belong to any single country and are instead considered the “common heritage of mankind” according to International Law.

As such, deep seabed mining is currently only at the exploration stage. It was reported in November that during one recent deep seabed mining trial a Canadian firm drove a pilot collector vehicle across over 80 kilometres of the seafloor, collecting approximately 4,500 tonnes of polymetallic nodules bringing over 3,000 tonnes up a 4.3-km riser system to the surface production vessel.

What is the International Seabed Authority?

The ISA is an autonomous international organisation established under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to establish the code governing the exploitation of minerals in international waters, while also ensuring the marine environment is protected from harmful effects that may arise from mining.

The ISA has 168 Member States which fund it through contributing a percentage of their gross domestic product (GDP).

In 2021, the Republic of Nauru triggered a treaty provision called the “two-year rule” which obliges the ISA to finalise and adopt international regulations for deep seabed mining within 24 months.

“The Republic of Nauru put a lot of pressure on the ISA when they complied with the two year provision, which is an international right to do mining with or without regulation,” says Mulsow.

“But at the same time, the ISA was rushing to have a mining code by 2023, no matter what Nauru did.”

Dr sandor mulsow
Dr Sandor Mulsow. Credit: Imma Perfetto

The 9 July 2023 deadline is quickly approaching. If the ISA can’t meet it and an exploitation application is submitted, then it may have to consider and provisionally approve that application.

But according to Mulsow, the best case scenario would be a delay to the start of deep seabed mining, or better yet, the ISA deciding that there are no grounds to do any mining, no matter what.

We don’t know if we can do deep seabed mining safely

Scientists say the deep sea is understudied and remains poorly understood, so it’s extremely difficult to properly assess the potential impacts oand to put in the necessary safeguards to protect biodiversity and ecosystems.

But Mulsow says what research has been done doesn’t look good.

“There are nine experiments done already in the early 70s on several parts of the ocean, where scientists went and disturbed the sediment of the seafloor, 4000 or 5000 metres was the depth, with a piece of metal. But that piece of metal was not bigger than 1.5 metres in width,” he explains.

“And every single one of those experiments, that I call physical disturbance of the seafloor, show that after 20-30 years, there was no recovery whatsoever.

“If we’re going to plough the seafloor at the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, where you have 18 different contractors, they will plough an area equivalent to Mongolia. Do you think there will not be an effect in the seafloor? Of course there will.”

Mulsow says that the ISA’s funding hasn’t been equally directed towards research protecting the marine environment as it has to research exploiting it: “Since 2017 when the Secretary of the ISA, Michael Lodge, was elected, ISA has devoted more than 85% of the budget to the developing of the minerals, to exploitation.”

“The worst is that we let the contractor do the environment baseline analysis and studies,” he says.

“The best one is a contract with BGR from Germany. The last time I checked, and that was probably 2019 or 2020, for an area the size of Germany they have a resolution of one sample every 45 square kilometres.

“What can you tell me with that? Nothing! It’s like you take a small core in Central Park in New York and tell me how many worms you have in all of Central Park. With one sample it is impossible.”

So what can we do to protect our oceans?

Mulsow says the ISA must fund more independent research into all the areas where deep seabed mining is proposed, with its budget shared equally towards both of its mandates: exploiting and protecting the marine environment.

“I will talk to my constituencies, my president, my minister, my Prime Minister and say: You have been paying the ISA a certain percentage of our GDP, which is part of my taxes. Would you tell me what’s happened with the money? Where was it spent? How was it spent?”

“And the other thing that we can do is say, okay, you know what, until we get an international audit of the ISA, we are not going to pay it anymore.”

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