A fall in the number of deep sea organisms illustrates the adverse impact of mining our oceans. This ruthless exploitation must end
Oceans are the lifeblood of planet Earth and humankind. They flow over nearly three-quarters of our planet and hold 97 per cent of the planet’s water. They produce more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere and absorb most of the carbon from it. About half of the world’s population lives within the coastal zone, and ocean-based businesses contribute more than $500 billion to the world’s economy. With credentials such as these, oceans of the world need to be treated with utmost care. Sadly, this is not the case. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, oceans are already filled with about 165 million tonnes of plastic, and it is estimated that by 2050, the weight of plastic floating in the oceans of the world will far outweigh the combined weight of fishes in it. To make matters worse, the prospect of deep-sea mining for precious metals, gas and petroleum is emerging as a serious threat.
The sea below 200 metres depth accounts for 95 per cent of the volume of the ocean, making it the largest habitat for life on Earth. Though it is perpetually cold, generally dark and subject to extreme pressures, the deep-sea contains a wealth of unique and unusual species, habitats and ecosystems. It also contains vast sources of mineral resources, some of them in unique or highly enriched concentrations. Attempts to recover these resources during the 1970s and 1980s were impaired by legal uncertainties and technical constraints, along with metal prices that did not justify the enormous investments required. Today, legal uncertainties have been largely resolved — marine mining and environmental monitoring technology have advanced rapidly. This has led to a renewed vigour with which ocean prospecting for its wealth has begun in right earnest.
Given the gold rush of sorts for the wealth of the oceans, the 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) explicitly laid down the rules and regulations for harnessing the ocean wealth. UNCLOS states that the ocean wealth within territorial water of a country is to be managed by the said country but those useful deposits beyond the territorial water are to be cultivated and extracted for the benefit of the entire mankind. UNCLOS also clearly mandates that ocean mining will keep environmental safety on priority. But as it usually happens, the mere presence of such laws have not ensured that the sea ecology today is safe — instead, the ocean prospecting commercial companies across the world are indulging in illegal practices by exploiting the loopholes in regulations. The fact that oceans are too large to monitor does not help matters either.
In order to improve the policing of mining activities, international bodies, such as the United Nations, would do better to first commission required studies that can record the biodiversity, species richness and abundance besides biomass and habitat mapping. These aspects, along with a study of the connectivity and life cycles of local species, temporal dynamics of deep-sea ecosystems, and ecotoxicology associated with the exposure to re-suspended metals and materials, will help understand as to how and what impact a proposed mining operation will have in a specific part of the deep ocean bed. Moreover, a detailed study of underwater currents is also necessary to gauge the possible adverse impact of a deep-sea mining operation in adjoining areas.
Closer home, India too is waking up to the benefits of deep-sea mining. The country, through an agreement with the International Seabed Authority (ISA), has established the right to mine polymetallic nodules present over 750,000 sq km in the seabed in the Central Indian Ocean Basin (CIOB), which can help India improve the availability of nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese. But this is where the face-off with the environment occurs. The scientific community admits that it is difficult to pick an environment-friendly technology and to predict the disturbances mining and related activities would cause to the seabed. The likely impacts of deep-sea mining would be on the organisms in the seabed from where the nodules would be mined.
Apart from the baseline study as prescribed by the ISA, the National Institute of Oceanography scientists studied macrofauna in the CIOB after simulating a disturbance. The Indian Deep-sea Environment Experiment (INDEX) was conducted at 5,300m depth. The pre-disturbance study showed 65 per cent bristle worms and 32 per cent crustaceans (fauna with a shell covering their bodies), followed by other groups. The post-disturbance study carried out after two months showed 27 per cent bristle worms and 28 per cent crustaceans. This fall in ocean floor organisms’ numbers is enough to illustrate the adverse impact of deep-sea mining.
There is an urgent need to protect the fragile ocean ecology from the oncoming deluge of deep-sea mining projects that may hit the CIOB very soon. The Government must act proactively and ensure that strict ground rules are established for ocean prospecting and mining. In addition to this, there must be an establishment of protected areas and reserves besides practising mutually exclusive mining strategies that seek to leave large, adjoining areas undisturbed by direct mining. The Government must also ensure that the mining companies use the latest mining equipment that reduces environmental damage footprint. Measures such as these will preserve the sanctity of our oceans and ensure avoidance of ruthless exploitation for nature reserves.
(The writer is an environmental journalist)