New Mining Technique Threatens Habitat and Ocean Wildlife

Guest Commentary by Kurt Lieber
Sea Shepherd Board of Directors

A recent article in The Age, stopped me in my tracks.  A company in Canada (Nautilus Marine Inc.) has just signed a contract to have 2 huge machines built that they intend to use to extract minerals from the ocean floor, approximately one mile below the surface of the ocean.  These machines operate like huge, abrasive vacuum cleaners.  The minerals are copper, tin, gold and zinc, and are found in deposits that are called poly-metallic.  The company that makes the machines is called Soil Machine Dynamics and they are based in England.  They specialize in making equipment for the defense industry.

The goal is to place these machines at the edges of deep water trenches and remove these deposits by vacuuming the sea floor.  They claim that they will crush all the rock that is removed.  This may sound benign, but we need to take very careful look at what the environment is like down there.

These vents are just beginning to be studied by scientists, and what they have learned about the life forms has been astonishing.  Before we sent unmanned submersibles to study these vents, all life forms on earth were thought to rely on photosynthesis for their food and energy sources.  Then it was discovered that the life forms that live in these areas do not rely on the sun at all for their energy requirements, they have developed the means of obtaining their energy from a process called chemosynthesis.  No light reaches these depths and it was only just discovered in 1970 that life forms near these deep sea vents can feed directly from the organisms that survive in these super heated waters (360 degrees F) where no sunlight penetrates.  Shrimp, crabs and 8 foot long tube worms thrive where these vents belch out water that has picked up minerals from deep inside the earth's crust.  The vents are formed where tectonic plates collide.

Very little is known about the ecosystems around these vents and now Nautilus Mineral Inc. wants to send some machines down 1700 meters (5,570 feet) and vacuum up all the life forms along with some rocks that will then be hauled to the surface and crushed.  There have been no peer reviewed studies done on this process of extraction, but Nautilus Mineral has already worked out a deal with Papua New Guinea to do an experimental operation off of their coast.

Papua New Guinea has a well documented history of environmental disasters from its onshore mining operations, now they want to allow an experiment in the deep ocean?  Sea Shepherd would like to see a completely independent scientific study done on all aspects of this technology.  How long does it take these animals to re-colonize once you kill them?  What will be the results of a vast track of sea bed that has been ripped of life?  What is the noise going to do for all the animal life that live down there, including the whales and giant squid?

Another recent article reveals a new discovery of microbes that are found around these vents.  This is from the UnderWater Times:

"Initial research predicted that life could in fact exist in such a cold, dark, rocky environment," said Santelli. "But we really didn't expect to find it thriving at the levels we observed."

Surprised by this diversity, the scientists tested more than one site and arrived at consistent results, making it likely, according to Santelli and Edwards,that rich microbial life extends across the ocean floor.

"This may represent the largest surface area on Earth for microbes to colonize," said Edwards.

"These scientists used modern molecular methods to quantify the microbial biomass and estimate the diversity of microbes in deep-sea environments," said David Garrison, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Biological Oceanography Program. NSF's Ridge 2000 program funded the research. "We now know that this remote region is teeming with microbes, more so than anyone had guessed."

Santelli and Edwards also found that the higher microbial diversity on ocean-bottom rocks compared favorably with other life-rich places in the oceans, such as hydrothermal vents.

In the article the company claims that this form of mining will be less polluting than land based mining.  And we all know what a great success story strip mining, coal mining and mountain top removal mining have been.  How can they state this when there have been no independent studies to prove that?

Human greed knows no bounds, but we need to demand that an environmental impact study is done, so we know how much damage will be sustained.  It is only then that we can decide whether or not the benefits outweigh the costs.  Our oceans are under assault from a variety of human induced stressors: overfishing, pollution, loss of bio-diversity, noise from commercial and military ships, invasive species, the oceans are becoming more acidified from the burning of fossil fuels, and of course global heating... These issues aren't going away anytime soon, and as stewards of this planet we need to make sure we do all we can to preserve ecosystems for future generations.

Each one of these vents has their own unique life forms that are not duplicated anywhere else.  Studies must be done at each potential site before any mining can be allowed.  Otherwise we run the risk of wiping out a habitat before we even know how it works and what benefits could be derived for future generations.


The Age:  Marine battle looms as miners dig deep

UnderWater Times: Barren Sea Floor Teaming with Life