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Executive Summary for August 4th

In our weekly roundup of ocean news, the International Seabed Authority meets to draft regulations on deep-sea mining, researchers link coral disease with El Niño and more critically endangered North Atlantic right whales are found dead.

Published on Aug. 4, 2017 Read time Approx. 2 minutes

Mining the Deep Sea

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) will work on draft exploitation regulations to govern the environmental impact of seabed mining during its three-week session in Kingston, Jamaica, its 23rd annual meeting.

The United Nations-chartered organization has issued 27 exploration licenses to private companies and state-owned corporations that cover close to 500,000 square miles (1.3 million square km) of the seabed outside national jurisdiction. The seabed remains mostly unexplored and the ISA faces the task of preserving deep-sea biodiversity from the largely unknown impacts of mining.

Mining companies are mainly targeting hundreds of thousands of polymetallic nodules – potato-sized rocks rich in manganese, nickel and cobalt that cover the seafloor in a vast zone between Hawaii and North America and in the central Indian Ocean basin.

Miners are also eyeing underwater mountains called seamounts that are rich in elements used to make smartphones, solar panels and other products. Other companies want to mine hydrothermal vent fields where superheated sulfides have laid down mineral deposits of copper, zinc, silver and gold.

Scientists in July published research detailing their discovery that hydrothermal vent fields near each other in the Gulf of California off Mexico contained unique communities of deep-sea marine life, raising questions about the ability of species to survive mining.

“The deep ocean is a vital force within the Earth system and must be protected from harm,” the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition wrote in a briefing paper on the ISA meetings. “The priority global approach to the consumption of mineral resources should be one of sustainability, reuse, improved product design and recycling of materials. If deep-sea mining is permitted to occur, it should not take place until appropriate and effective regulations for exploration and exploitation are in place to ensure that the full range of marine habitats, biodiversity and ecosystem functions are adequately and effectively protected, including through a network of marine protected areas and reserves.”

Coral Disease Spikes With El Niño

Researchers at the Florida Institute of Technology have found that three common diseases afflicting coral reefs in the Caribbean grow more intense during El Niño years.

In a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists analyzed 18 years’ worth of coral data collected at 2,100 sites in the Caribbean and compared disease outbreaks with El Niño patterns.

“We found that three coral diseases – white-band disease, yellow-band disease and dark-spot syndrome – peak every 2-4 years, and that they share common periodicities with El Niño cycles,” Carly Randall, the study’s co-author and a research associate at the university, said in a statement. “Our results indicate that coral diseases cycle predictably and that they often correspond with El Niño.”

Warming oceans are likely to increase such outbreaks, according to the scientists. “Our findings suggest that we might see diseases in corals ramping up in the coming decades,” Randall said.

Tenth North Atlantic Right Whale Found Dead

Since June, 10 critically endangered North Atlantic right whales have been found dead off the east coast of Canada, the latest victims being found this week.

The news alarms scientists, who say that 2.5 percent of the right whale population has now died in less than two months.

After it was determined that two whales had likely died in collisions with ships and a third was discovered entangled in fishing gear, the Canadian government closed the snow crab fishery in parts of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and requested that vessels reduce their speed while crossing the gulf.

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