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Protect ocean ecosystems, not exploit them, is what the ISA must do


At a deep-sea vent in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador: one of the largest concentrations of giant tube worms (Riftia pachyptila) observed, with anemones and mussels colonizing in close proximity. by NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Galapagos Rift Expedition 2011

Recent meetings should have considered how risky commercial experiments put these mostly unexplored and fragile areas at risk, writes Payal Sampat.

Deep-sea mining sounds like something out of a science fiction novel – and indeed, the claims by companies hoping to extract metals from cobalt crusts, manganese nodules, and hydrothermal vents on deep-sea beds do seem to have their basis in fiction more than fact. As yet, there are no viable deep-sea mining operations – but many companies and governments are hoping that will change.

Deep-sea mining is a high-risk, experimental industrial activity being proposed in one of the most fragile, unexplored areas of our planet. Far too little is known about the potential impacts of deep-sea mining on our oceans, marine life and fisheries. Many of these marine organisms haven’t even been discovered, let alone studied. Scientists in Germany recently reported their findings that the ancestor of all living things lived in deep-sea vents.

In July, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) held its annual meetings in Kingston, Jamaica. You would think that an international body established under the United Nation’s Law of the Sea would make its first mission to protect the global oceans commons and the marine life that it holds. But thus far, that has not been the case.

The ISA has already issued 26 licenses to explore 1.5 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean floor, as well as additional swaths of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and the Red Sea. Additional areas are being opened up to exploration every month – with little oversight, or understanding of the impacts of such immensely destructive industrial activity on marine life and ecosystems and communities that live in coastal regions.

The ISA’s role must be to provide careful oversight and to implement the precautionary principle in order to protect ocean life. It cannot allow companies and governments to experiment with and profit from our global commons. It must promote research, oversight and protection of our deep ocean environments.

And international authorities and governments must come together to create deep-sea Marine Protected Areas as New Zealand did in 2015 by creating the 620,000 square kilometer Kermadec ocean sanctuary.

The ISA’s mission must be to protect oceans, not to serve a guide for how to exploit them. it’s draft Mining Code must embody this mission, rather than carve up the ocean into serving size portions for risky commercial experiments.

Payal Sampat is Mining Program Director at Earthworks.

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