Areas outside exclusive economic zones in dark blue.
Map of international waters in the world.
From FT by
Gerard Barron shows off a potato-sized rock scooped from the floor of the Pacific Ocean some 4km beneath the surface.
Despite concerns about the sea’s worsening health, it is, he says, the vanguard of a new mining industry.
“Think of it as an electric vehicle in a rock,” he says, holding the greyish polymetallic nodule in the palm of his hand at last month’s international Our Ocean conference in Oslo.
The nodule is rich in nickel, cobalt and manganese — metals that are in demand for electric car batteries and wind turbines to help bring about a shift from fossil fuels.
Plans by mining companies such as Mr Barron’s — he is chief executive of Canada-based DeepGreen — are a dilemma for governments struggling to tighten governance rules to protect ocean life from global warming, over-fishing and pollution.
“Ocean governance is a mess,” says Janis Searles Jones, chief executive of the Ocean Conservancy, a US non-profit environmental group.
“It’s all done sector by sector — fishing, shipping, mining and pollution have all been dealt with separately.” She urges a more unified approach, with climate change at its heart and greater involvement by heads of government.
Gerard Barron holds a seabed nodule of the sort that his company, DeepGreen, hopes to mine In March 2020, governments will meet in New York to try to complete a UN treaty to ensure “conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction”.
Coastal states have exclusive rights over the seas up to 200 nautical miles from their land, but the waters further out — the so-called high seas — are less regulated.
In October, national representatives will assemble in Beijing under the auspices of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, a meeting whose agenda will include setting new, voluntary, goals for marine protected areas.
These waters, where human activity is restricted for the sake of conservation, currently account for just 7 per cent of the sea.
Between those two gatherings is a meeting of the International Seabed Authority, in Jamaica in July.
It will set rules for exploitation of deep-sea resources by companies such as DeepGreen.
So far the ISA, established under the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea to regulate the ocean floor in areas beyond national jurisdiction, has issued 30 licences to prospect for — but not exploit — seabed minerals.
As far as some experts are concerned, that is enough.
“It’s time to press the pause button [on seabed mining],” says Professor Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University and a former administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
She explains that research due for publication in coming months indicates that the deep ocean seabed stores more carbon than previously thought and it could be risky to churn up sediments.
Ocean nodules on the bottom of the sea floor
© Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority
© Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority
Prof Lubchenco is not alone in wanting more time to assess the risks of mining.
Fiji’s fisheries minister, Semi Koroilavesau, says his country is lobbying for a 10-year moratorium on deep sea exploitation “to allow the oceans to regenerate”.
That could threaten any mining, since the ISA operates by consensus among member states.
Mr Barron is undeterred.
He says there are trillions of nodules, formed naturally on the seabed between Mexico and Hawaii; these could be collected by a robot harvester the size of a bus, and sucked up a pipe to the surface in commercial quantities from 2024.
Mining at sea like this would be less harmful than on land, he says.
Michael Lodge, the ISA’s secretary-general, says a moratorium on mining would be “totally counterproductive” and would undercut ocean science, which is often funded by companies.
“The high seas is not, as some NGOs want to portray, a totally unregulated Wild West,” he says, adding that there are already strict environmental controls.
But the current governance system for the ocean is fragmented.
It was set up before governments appreciated the risks of climate change, pollution and over-fishing in seas long regarded as too vast to be substantially affected by human activities.
And the regime that applies to the high seas — defined by the Convention on the Law of the Sea and groups including the ISA, the International Maritime Organization and regional fisheries management organisations — often lacks teeth.
The Law of the Sea, for instance, tells states to limit marine pollution and safeguard fish stocks.
But the UN warns that the cumulative weight of plastic dumped in the seas by 2050 could exceed that of all fish, while almost 90 per cent of marine fish stocks are fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted.
Plastic pollution covering Accra beach in Ghana
The UN says the weight of plastic in the ocean could exceed that of fish by 2050 Underscoring the mounting risks, a UN report in September from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that the ocean is under unprecedented threat from global warming, which is killing coral reefs and aggravating a decline in fish stocks.
“We need to give space back to nature.
We are moving into the sixth mass extinction, due to human influences,” says Hans-Otto Pörtner, a lead writer of the IPCC report.
The last mass extinction was when the dinosaurs were wiped out 65m years ago.
Prof Pörtner is one of many scientists who recommend setting aside 30 per cent of the seas by 2030 in a network of marine protected areas.
In September 2018, Britain launched a “30x30” campaign with the same goal, supported by countries including Belgium, Costa Rica and Kenya.
The proposal will be discussed at October’s CBD meeting, which makes decisions by consensus.
Jennifer Morgan, head of Greenpeace, says China and Russia seem most reluctant about the 30 per cent target, along with Iceland and Norway.
What is more, she notes that any goals set under the CBD are only voluntary, and that many protected areas exist only on paper.
When policymakers decide on governance, Mr Barron of DeepGreen argues that they should consider the health of the entire planet, not just the ocean.
Most cobalt, for instance, now comes from Democratic Republic of Congo, where 43 illegal miners died in a tunnel collapse in June and rainforests are under threat from mine-related development.
“There is a very dirty secret in the green transition — it’s about where those metals come from to build the batteries,” he says, slipping the nodule back into the pocket of his leather jacket.