Conservation & Science

Striking a balance: deep sea mining and ecosystem protection

Thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface lies a hidden world of undiscovered species, ancient animals and unique seabed habitats—as well as a vast untapped store of natural resources including valuable metals and rare-earth minerals. There’s growing demand globally to tap these minerals, which are key components in everything from cars to computers, skyscrapers and smartphones. And there are proposals around the world to begin mining the seafloor: in the Indian Ocean, off Papua New Guinea, and in the Red Sea.

This Relicanthus sp. -- a new species from a new order of Cnidaria -- lives on sponge stalks attached to mineral nodules more than 12,000 feet below the surface. Credit: Craig Smith and Diva Amon, ABYSSLINE Project.
This Relicanthus sp. — a new species from a new order of Cnidaria — lives on sponge stalks attached to mineral nodules more than 12,000 feet below the surface. Credit: Craig Smith and Diva Amon, ABYSSLINE Project.

Deep sea mining will have impacts on ecosystems that are lightly mapped and poorly understood. So, researchers from the Center for Ocean Solutions in Monterey and co-authors from leading institutions around the world propose a strategy for balancing commercial extraction of deep-sea resources with protection of diverse seabed habitats. Their approach, published this week in the journal Science, is intended to inform upcoming discussions by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) that will lay the groundwork for future deep-sea environmental protection and mining regulations.

A 26-year old test mining track created on the seafloor  in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ)  illustrates the extremely slow recovery of abyssal ecosystems from physical disturbance. Credit: Ifremer, Nodinaut cruise (2004)
A 26-year old test mining track created on the seafloor in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ) illustrates the extremely slow recovery of abyssal ecosystems from physical disturbance. Credit: Ifremer, Nodinaut cruise (2004)

“Our purpose is to point out that the ISA has an important opportunity to create networks of no-mining marine protected areas (MPAs) as part of the regulatory framework they are considering at their July meeting,” says lead author Lisa Wedding, an early career science fellow at the Center for Ocean Solutions.  “The establishment of regional MPA networks in the deep sea could potentially benefit both mining and biodiversity interests by providing more economic certainty and ecosystem protection.”

Adds co-author Sarah Reiter, an ocean policy research analyst at the Monterey Bay Aquarium: “We’re advancing an approach that’s grounded in the best available science, consistent with international law, and feasible given political will.”

The Center for Ocean Solutions is a collaboration among Stanford University, Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). It works to solve the major problems facing the ocean and prepares leaders to take on these challenges.

Take an in-depth look at the research and the issues.

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