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Oceans Deeply Talks: Mining the Ocean

Oceans Deeply talks with experts about seabed mining: how it could impact rare ecosystems, how much scientists know about the deep sea and the challenges of regulating industrial activity on the ocean floor.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 1 minutes
2016 deepwater exploration of the marianas1
A cusk eel with an unusual head shape. This could be a new species, and an example of how little is still known about the deep-sea ecosystem.NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

In the latest episode of Deeply Talks, Todd Woody, News Deeply’s executive editor for environment, speaks with Conn Nugent, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ seabed mining projectKristina Gjerde, a senior high seas adviser at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and Matthew Gianni, cofounder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, about recent steps to regulate seabed mining and what impact excavating the ocean floor could have on unique deep-sea ecosystems and marine life.

The ocean floor is vast and largely unexplored, but it contains deposits of valuable minerals such as copper, cobalt, nickel and rare-earth minerals that are essential for modern electronics. However, most of the seabed lies in international waters, an area governed by the United Nations’ International Seabed Authority. Now, said Nugent, nations such as China, Japan and Russia are interested in harvesting those minerals, as are corporations like Lockheed Martin.

But that mining could have major impacts on deep-sea organisms. For instance, a vast abyssal plain that lies between Hawaii and Mexico miles below the surface is rich in polymetallic nodules targeted for mining. The area was once thought to be largely devoid of life, but Gjerde said discoveries in recent years have found that the nodules are in fact habitat for a diverse array of marine life.

While a single deep-sea mining operation might not dramatically change the ocean’s ecology, said Gjerde, “What happens when you have two? What happens when you have three?”

Ocean mining in international waters seems inevitable, noted Nugent, given the support from a wide array of nations. “There is no question that seabed mining will cause some loss of biodiversity,” he said, adding that policymakers need to strike a balance between mining and conservation. But not everyone agrees. Gianni noted that the deep ocean remains mostly unknown, as do the potential impacts from mining. “If you open up the doors on all this,” said Gianni, “we’ll be playing damage control for the next 200 years or more.”

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