By Steve Pogonowski
6 December 2013, Suva Fiji - Pacific island communities and conservation groups are concerned about potential environmental damage from deep sea mining, attendees heard at the 9th Pacific Islands Conference on Nature Conservation and Protected Areas.
Though only two seafloor mining permits have been issued - in Papua New Guinea and the Red Sea - and no mineral extraction work has begun, limited research completed so far predicts wide-ranging implications for marine benthic organisms and indirect impacts on fishing, tourism and coastal communities.
Mining companies have recognised the potential of deep sea areas for extracting large quantities of key minerals such as seafloor massive sulphides (SMS), manganese nodules and cobalt-rich crust.
Drivers for the increased interest in deep sea mining included high global metal demand, rising metal prices and improvements in marine mining technology.
Mr. Akuila Tawake from the Pacific Islands Applied Geoscience and Technology Division (SOPAC) in the Secretariat of the Pacific Community said the difficulty for less wealthy countries with large mineral deposits offshore could be keeping a balanced view.
“For some Pacific islands countries, deep sea minerals may present the only exploitable natural resource sector apart from fish,” Mr. Tawake said.
“Deep sea mining may bring much-needed economic development opportunities.”
The richer mineral content of deep sea ore was also an attractive proposition, as whole land-based SMS ore prices were between US$50-180 per tonne, deep sea ore could be worth US$500-1500, Mr. Tawake said.
SOPAC deep sea mining legal adviser Hannah Lily said key mining areas were outside most national jurisdictions of the exclusive economic zones and were governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
She said mining companies still required the approval of the country or territory bordering the potential mining site, which meant relevant laws and policies needed to be designed to protect Pacific communities.
Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme environmental monitoring and governance director Mr. Sefanaia Nawadra suggested external organisations could assist small countries in writing environmental impact assessment guidelines and terms of reference for mining.
One of the many impacts expected from deep sea mining was the damage caused by mechanical extraction of minerals to hydrothermal vent ecosystems, World Wildlife Fund
Australia marine policy manager Mr. Paul Gamblin said.
“This could damage the potential for future scientific, medicinal or recreational opportunities in unique vent ecosystems. We believe this is one of the biggest gambles to happen on the planet for marine ecosystems,” Mr. Gamblin said.