Deep-sea mining - potential devastation on marine biodiversity

Challenging the misconception of the "dematerialized" nature of digital

The endangered whale shark that migrates across the CCZ zone would be threatened by waste deposits from deep-sea mining

Modern humans depend on electronic devices and network. While digital systems also have a positive impact on the environment throughout a range of sectors, we don't always consider the consequences of its production and life cycle. The full complexity of the reality goes even further than we might imagine. Such concerns are voiced by non-profit organizations such as the Entertainment Pact, which highlights the emerging challenge of the environmental footprint of the digital sector.

The most problematic part of our digital device's life cycle is at the initial and final stages: raw material mining and e-waste. Indeed, as rare earth minerals are depleting, companies are beginning to look towards the planet's seabeds to feed their ever-growing need for mobile, computer and network components.

While deep-sea mining has not started in any part of the world, 16 international mining companies already have contracts to explore the seabed for minerals. The disruption caused by the machines may release carbon stored in deep sea sediments, and the wider impacts could disrupt the processes that store carbon in those sediments.

The practice of deep-sea mining for the extraction of ressources including polymetallic nodules (potato-sized rock accretions on the seafloor that harbor commercially valuable metals like manganese, nickel, cobalt and copper) can take place at between 800-6500m below sea level.

The risks of this little-studied practice include potential damage when dredging the seabed, devastation of waste discharge on underwater habitats, and the impact of noise pollution on animal sonar communication.

Indeed, the risks of deep-sea mining are highlighted in a report by James Cook University in Australia and the University of the South Pacific on the planned mining of polymetallic nodules in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), an huge plain of 4.5 million square kilometers between Hawaii and Mexico in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Impact assessment on local ecosystems and biodiversity also underlines the gap in knowledge on the true impact of this practice on deep-sea habitats and species.

“The reason we decided it was really urgent to put this report out is because … the International Seabed Authority is under a lot of pressure to get the regulations finalized that would allow the mining to start. The mining could literally start within the next couple of years."

Catherine Coumans, co-editor of report & Asia-Pacific program coordinator for MiningWatch Canada

With deep-sea mining companies claiming polymetallic nodule mining would be less destructive than land-based mining, the "better of two evils" argument is on thin ground. The effects could be irreversible. Deep-sea habitats and species are slow-growing, so post-mining recovery could take millions of years — if a recovery is possible at all, according to the report. Endangered species such as whale sharks that migrate through the CCZ would be subjected to waste discharge.

Authors of the report highlight that the development of circular economies, including discarded device programs by phone companies such as Orange, makes deep-sea mining an unnecessary exercise. In fact, up to 90% of a mobile phone’s materials and 93% of a computer can be recycled. E-waste, if it is properly recycled, can be an important part of the solution to the damage caused by mining.

“This is not needs-based mining, this is profit based mining, and it’s unnecessary... we don’t need to extend the harm that we do with mining on land into the deep sea environment”.

Catherine Coumans

The Deep Sea Mining campaign, member of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, a group of over 80 NGOs, calls for a moratorium on deep-sea mining, until several objectives have been met, including a better understanding of the risks, ensuring that mining companies obtain consent from indigenous people, and demonstrating that deep-sea mining can be managed to prevent irreparable damage to marine biodiversity.

“What people need to understand is what is at risk. The risk is to all of the ecosystems that are associated with the deep sea, and that goes right through to the fisheries that a lot of Pacific island nations rely on for food security and also for their livelihood."

Catherine Coumans

Source: Anticipations Lafayette, Mongabay News