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Mining the Deep Sea

They want to mine the deep sea.

We shouldn’t be surprised. This culture has stolen 90% of the large fish, created 450 deoxygenated areas, and murdered 50% of the coral reefs. It has wiped out 40% of the plankton. It has warmed and acidified the water to a level not seen since the Permian mass extinction. And indeed, there is another mass extinction underway. Given the ongoing assault on the ocean by this culture, there is serious question as to whether the upper ocean will be inhabitable by the end of this century.

For some people, a best-case scenario for the future is that some bacteria will survive around volcanic vents at the bottom of the ocean. Deep sea mining is about to make that an unlikely possibility.

It’s being touted as history’s largest mining operation.

They have plans to extract metals from deposits concentrated around hydrothermal vents and nodules – potato sized rocks – which are scattered across the sea floor.

Sediment will be vacuumed up from the deep sea, processed onboard mining vessels, then the remaining slurry will be dumped back into the ocean. Estimates of the amount of slurry that will be processed by a single mining vessel range from 2 to 6 million cubic feet per day.

I’ve seen water go from clear to opaque when an inexperienced diver gives a few kicks to the sea floor.

Now imagine 6 million cubic feet of sediment being dumped into the ocean. To put that in perspective, that’s about 22,000 dump trucks full of sediment – and that’s just one mining vessel operating for one day. Imagine what happens when there are hundreds of them. Thousands of them.

Plumes at the mining site are expected to smother and bury organisms on the sea floor. Light pollution from the mining equipment would disrupt species that depend on bioluminescence. Sediment plumes released at the surface or in the water column would increase turbidity and reduce light, disrupting the photosynthesis of plankton.

A few environmental groups are calling for a moratorium on deep sea mining. Meanwhile, exploratory mining is already underway. An obscure organization known as the International Seabed Authority has been given the responsibility of drafting an underwater mining code, selecting locations for extraction, and issuing licenses to mining companies.

Some companies claim that the damage from deep sea mining could be mitigated with proper regulations. For example, instead of dumping slurry at the surface, they would pump it back down and release it somewhere deeper. Obviously, regulations will not stop the direct harm to the area being mined. But even if the most stringent regulations were put in place, there still exists the near-certainty of human error, pipe breakage, sediment spills, and outright disregard for the rules. As we’ve seen with fisheries, regulations are essentially meaningless when there is no enforcement. 40% of the total catch comes from illegal fishing. Quotas are routinely ignored and vastly exceeded. On land, we know that corporations will gladly pay a fine when it is cheaper to do so than it is to follow the rules.

But all this misses the point which is that some activities are so immoral, they should not be permitted under any circumstances. Permits and regulations only serve to legalize and legitimize the act of deep sea mining, when a moratorium is the only acceptable response.

Canadian legislation effectively prohibits deep sea mining in Canada’s territorial waters. Ironically, Canadian corporations are leading the effort to mine the oceans elsewhere.

A spokesperson from the Vancouver-based company Deep Green Metals attempted to defend deep sea mining from an environmental perspective, “Mining on land now takes place in some of the most biodiverse places on the planet. The ocean floor, on the other hand, is a food-poor environment with no plant life and an order of magnitude less biomass living in a larger area. We can’t avoid disturbing wildlife, to be clear, but we will be putting fewer organisms at risk than land-based operations mining the same metals.” (as cited in Mining Watch https://miningwatch.ca/news/2020/6/16/deep-sea-mining-environmental-solution-or-impending-catastrophe).

This argument centers on a false choice. It presumes that mining must occur, which is absurd. Then, it paints a picture that the only area affected will be the area that is mined. In reality, the toxic slurry from deep sea mining will poison the surrounding ocean for hundreds of miles, with heavy metals like mercury and lead expected to bio-accumulate in everyone from plankton, to tuna, to sharks, to cetaceans.

A study from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences stated that “A very large area will be blanketed by sediment to such an extent that many animals will not be able to cope with the impact and whole communities will be severely affected by the loss of individuals and species.”

The idea that fewer organisms are at risk from deep sea mining is an egregious lie. Scientists have known since 1977 that photosynthesis is not the basis of every natural community. There are entire food webs that begin with organic chemicals floating from hydrothermal vents. These communities include giant clams, octopuses, crabs, and 10-foot tube worms, to name a few. Conducting mining in these habitats is bad enough, but the effects go far beyond the mined area.

Deep sea mining literally threatens every level of the ocean from surface to seabed. In doing so, it puts all life on the planet at risk. From smothering the deep sea, to toxifying the food web, to disrupting plankton, the tiny organisms who produce two thirds of the earth’s oxygen, it’s just one environmental disaster after another.

The most common justification for deep sea mining is that it will be necessary to create a bright green future. A report by the World Bank found that production of minerals such as graphite, lithium, and cobalt would need to increase by nearly 500% by 2050 to meet the growing demand for so-called renewable energy.

There is an article from the BBC titled “Electric Car future May Depend on Deep Sea Mining”. What if we switched the variables, and instead said “the future of the ocean depends on stopping car culture” or “the future of the ocean depends on opposing so-called renewable energy”. If we take into account all of the industries that are eviscerating the ocean, it must also be said that “the future of the ocean depends on stopping industrial civilization”.

Evidently this culture does not care whether the ocean has a future. It’s more interested in justifying continued exploitation under the banner of green consumerism.

I do not detail the horrors of deep sea mining to make a moral appeal to those who are destroying the ocean. They will not stop voluntarily. Instead, I am appealing to you, the reader, to do whatever is necessary to make it so this industry cannot destroy the ocean.

 Julia Barnes is the director of the award-winning documentary Sea of Life.

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