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Executive Summary for August 11th

In our weekly oceans news roundup, the International Seabed Authority meets to develop environmental standards for deep-sea mining, scientists find that noise pollution confuses fish and there’s relief over a baby boom of endangered southern right whales in Australia.

Published on Aug. 11, 2017 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Writing the Rules of Deep-Sea Mining

KINGSTON, Jamaica – The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is moving closer to finalizing regulations to allow the mining of minerals in the deep sea.

Discussion has been going on for years. But as the second week of the United Nations-chartered organization’s annual three-week meeting neared a close in Kingston, Jamaica, there seemed to be momentum to finalize environmental regulations governing the mining of the seabed outside national jurisdiction.

On Thursday, the ISA delegates approved its 28th “exploration” contract, awarding Poland a 15-year permit to assess the mining potential of 4,000 square miles (10,000 square km) of the Atlantic seabed thought to contain deposits of copper, zinc and other metals laid down by hydrothermal vent fields. The authority has now issued exploration licenses to private companies and state-owned corporations covering close to 500,000 square miles (1.3 million square km) of the seabed.

Most of the contracts target potato-sized polymetallic nodules scattered over the seafloor which are rich in manganese and other metals. Other miners have their eyes on underwater mountains called seamounts that contain cobalt and rare minerals used to make cellphones and other products.

But the focus this week was more on exploitation than exploration.

“The delegation supports speedy development of exploitation regulations so the authority can transition from exploration to the exploitation of minerals,” Singapore’s delegate to the ISA said on Wednesday during a meeting of the organization’s council. “It is important that as we take the next step to make exploitation a reality we should not forget the need to mitigate environmental impact.”

And there’s the rub. The authority’s mandate is to regulate the sustainable use of the seabed for the benefit of humankind. But the challenge is how to meet an obligation to preserve as much as possible the biological diversity of the barely explored deep sea – while allowing mining.

Take Poland’s exploration contract. Before the delegates granted the contract, a representative from an environmental group, WWF, stood up in the council chambers and pointed out that part of the seabed to be explored and potentially mined by Poland has been designated as an Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Area (EBSA) by the U.N.-chartered Convention on Biological Diversity. Both that organization and the ISA operate under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The delegates responded to the WWF representative’s observation with silence and approved Poland’s contract without any discussion.

The ISA on Wednesday evening released “Draft Regulations on Exploitation of Mineral Resources” that include environmental reporting requirements for contractors. The draft will be discussed when the delegates convene on Monday. But it does not address specific environmental standards for seabed mining, so expect many more meetings to come.

A New Threat to Fish: Noise Pollution

Researchers in the United Kingdom have found that simulated noise from offshore construction confuses sea bass and makes them more vulnerable to predators.

Newcastle University scientists played recordings of drilling and other construction noise and then mimicked a predator, according to the study, published in the journal, Marine Pollution Bulletin.

“Over the last few decades, the sea has become a very noisy place,” Ilaria Spiga, the study’s lead researcher, said in a statement. “Sea bass, along with other bony fish, rely on a characteristic ‘startle and response’ mechanism to get away from predators. Exposure to underwater noises can make it harder for fish to detect and react to predators. It could also impair their own ability to detect food.”

Good News on Whales

Amid reports of a growing death toll of endangered North Atlantic right whales in Canada, comes some happy news of a baby boom of equally imperiled southern right whales in Australia.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that four whales were born during the current calving season off the southwest coast of Victoria. There are only 300 southern right whales in Australia and scientists were worried about the survival of the mammals.

“This year, they’ve really made up for it,” said Mandy Watson, a senior biodiversity officer with the state Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

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