Why you should care about seabed mining

By Lee First

We know more about the moon and the surface of Mars than we know about the deep ocean. But increasing demand for rare metals and other valuable minerals could bring industrial-scale prospectors to seafloors off the Western U.S. before the consequences of ocean mining, let alone the nature of the ocean itself, are barely understood.

Seabed mining (SBM) is an emerging type of mining for minerals and rare earth metals on the ocean floor. SBM could help meet humanity’s insatiable thirst for essential minerals and theoretically power a “greener” economy. But these mining activities also carry a high risk for marine life and our ocean ecosystems, and threaten nearshore waters like the three-mile band of the Pacific Ocean managed by the states of California and Washington. SBM has been banned in Oregon’s state waters.

SBM will almost certainly cause major problems to our oceans, and the timing couldn’t be worse. The ocean, especially the nearshore ocean, is already facing a mixture of stressors: industrialization, climate change, ocean acidification and other forces which will increasingly challenge our ability to understand and co-exist with a healthy ocean.

It’s important to clarify the difference between the zones where mining is proposed to take place. Deep sea mining (DSM) is primarily proposed extraction of manganese nodules, seafloor sulfides around hydrothermal vents, and semi-precious minerals. For this article, I’ll concentrate on the threats posed by sea bed mining (SBM) in Washington State’s coastal waters. State waters include the area between extreme low tide to three miles offshore. Minerals in this zone include mineral rich sands, semi-precious and precious minerals (gold, titanium) and phosphorite.

Many of the minerals found on the sea floor, such as erbium, europium, and yttrium, are deemed essential to the modern digital economy. Transition toward an electricity-based transportation and information infrastructure, especially in western societies, is increasing demands for precious and rare earth metals, powering our electric car batteries and electronics. There is increased interest in phosphorus nodule mining and phosphorite from the nearshore areas because phosphor-based artificial fertilizers are becoming more important to drive world food production.

The exploration and exploitation of High Seas mineral deposits is governed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) under authority conferred by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The ISA has issued 29 exploration leases so far. The leases were issued to contractors who work with United Kingdom, China, France, Belgium, India, Germany and Russia. The Lost City Hydrothermal Field, located in the middle of the Atlantic, is a hot-bed of the developing industry. It was discovered around the year 2000, and is jampacked with unusual life forms. There is some hard mineral mining in the United States, for instance gold dredging off Alaska, but no real activity yet off the West Coast. And close to home, mineral rich black sands have been documented in Grays Harbor and along the lower Columbia River, and other coastal areas.

Oceanographer Sylvia Earle likens seabed mining to clearcutting forests. Mining, whether on earth or on the sea floor, is a short-term non-renewable activity. On earth and sea, once the minerals have been extracted, the resources and jobs are gone, and a highly damaged landscape is the result. By contrast, if fisheries are managed sustainably, the food and job security they provide can last for generations.

As with land mining, the impacts of seabed mining are very likely catastrophic. The main way to collect minerals is to “vacuum” the sea floor using heavy, high-tech dredging equipment. This equipment is noisy and can release harmful effluent. It has the potential to stir up sediments, block surface sunlight, and destroy aquatic life. Sediment plumes and waste discharge from mining could upset phytoplankton blooms at the sea’s surface, and introduce toxic metals into marine food chains.

Noise pollution could change the swimming and schooling behavior of tuna, and cause dolphins and whales to strand. Areas where mining is being pursued are habitat for turtles, whales, fish, as well as serving as waypoints for migrating species. Along with environmental groups, representatives from the fishing industry are warning of severe risks to ocean fisheries posed by SBM.

In Washington State, mining in nearshore areas has the potential to have a huge impact to our nearshore fisheries and shellfish industries. It would also be in direct conflict with recreational activities (beachgoing, whale watching, swimming, paddling, fishing, surfing, diving).

SBM could also exacerbate climate change even more by releasing carbon stored in deep sea sediments, which are known to be a long-term storage system for “blue carbon.” SBM may be among the largest transformations that humans have ever proposed to the surface of the planet. While the annual worldwide land mine production of rare earth metals currently stands at around 100,000 tons, the deep sea floor is estimated to contain 15 million tons of rare earth oxides.

Oregon prohibited seabed mining for hard minerals within three miles (state waters) of their coastline in 1991. California and Washington should act now to follow that example, given the significant emerging evidence that seabed mining would harm fisheries, wildlife, and communities.

Please help us with our campaign to prohibit seabed mining off the coast of Washington before it can start. Our plan includes a combination of outreach and educational efforts directed at state agency officials and lawmakers to first determine the right procedural pathway to a prohibition, and then more of the same to make it happen. It will take a few years – but with your help, we can do it.

Lee First is the Twin Harbors Waterkeeper, representing the Waterkeeper Alliance. For more information on that go to http://twinharborswaterkeeper.org