Race against time?: Before the seabed mining rush, scientists try to determine which sites need protection

MPA News

Deep sea mining of minerals is coming. The International Seabed Authority, which governs such mining in areas beyond national jurisdiction, has granted 23 contracts so far for exploration of potential mining sites. Of those contracts, most of them (13) are in just one region: the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ), a 6 million-km2 area swath of the eastern Pacific Ocean.

The CCZ, relatively rich in the polymetallic nodules that seabed mining targets, has been in the sights of nations and mining companies for years. Although market prices for seabed minerals are currently too low for exploitation to be cost-effective, that will likely change in time. By then, thanks to exploration, countries and companies will know where the best seabed mining sites are.

Anticipating the eventual mineral rush, the ISA in 2012 adopted a precautionary approach. It enacted a network of “Areas of Particular Environmental Interest” in the CCZ where even exploration would be off-limits for five years to allow scientists to study the sites. Believed to contain higher-than-average benthic biodiversity (based on preliminary models), these provisional sites cover 1.44 million km2 in total — one of the largest MPA networks in the world. By safeguarding the areas before exploration began, the ISA could decide whether to protect them permanently or not.

It will be five years in July 2017. Scientific understanding of the APEI ecosystems — thousands of meters below the surface, in the middle of the ocean — remains very limited. What is the future of the APEIs — or, for that matter, of other sensitive sites in the deep ocean?

Adrian Glover of the Natural History Museum in London led a workshop this past May on the regional biodiversity, connectivity, and biogeography of the CCZ. Thirty-two scientists from around the world gathered to discuss the state of knowledge. MPA News spoke with Glover.

MPA News: Drawing from your workshop, do you believe the APEIs represent the areas of the CCZ that are in greatest need of protection from mining?

Adrian Glover: There are, as yet, no published studies that compare connectivity across the APEIs and contracted regions. Until we have at least some data, we cannot say from a biogeography or connectivity basis if the APEIs are representative, or could act as buffers or refugia from impacted regions.

The APEIs were created using a precautionary approach based on modeled data. At the time, a temporary regional management plan was a perfectly reasonable approach from the ISA. The problem has been that no organization has been willing to find the funding for detailed study of the APEIs or the assumptions on which they were based. Currently we are mostly reliant on individual studies by contractors [mining firms] that are focused only on the contracted regions, following ISA guidelines. There have been just two research cruises to APEIs that are only now delivering some data on connectivity.

MPA News: The general lack of baseline data for CCZ biodiversity makes effective environmental management of the region a significant challenge. Considering the fact the ISA is already awarding contracts for mineral exploration, is it a race against time for scientists?

Glover: Whilst it is true that contracts for mineral exploration have been awarded, there have been no contracts awarded for mineral exploitation. In addition, the mineral exploration contracts require contractors to undertake baseline scientific survey. So it could be argued that the ISA and the regulatory regime it has created have effectively put the brakes on resource extraction whilst science is being undertaken. This is in stark contrast to what has happened with regard to high-seas fisheries, for example.

However, the problem has been that the number of useful data publications with quality biological information from the CCZ is woefully poor, despite many research cruises taking place. This is simply because the funding has been made available for the research cruises, but not for the post-cruise specimen identification, analysis, and data archiving, particularly using the latest molecular methods. This in my view is the greatest issue that is preventing sustainable environmental management of the CCZ.

For more information:

Adrian Glover, Natural History Museum, London, UK. Email: a.glover [at] nhm.ac.uk

International Seabed Authority: www.isa.org.jm

Deep Sea Conservation Coalition: www.savethehighseas.org

Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative: www.dosi-project.org

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