The scattered islands and atolls of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) are home to less than 105,000 people and cover a mere 702 square kilometers (about 271 square miles). But the region’s territorial waters span 2.6 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean, making it the 14th largest exclusive economic zone in the world.
The ocean is the lifeblood of these relatively underdeveloped islands, where the average annual income per capita is just under $4,000 (€3,900), but where successive governments have done what they can to protect their most important resource. Thus, the announcement on July 10 of the membership of the FSM in the Alliance of countries for a moratorium on deep sea mining, unveiled at the United Nations Conference on the oceans in Lisbon at the end of June, was no surprise.
In a statement to DW, FSM President David Panuelo said mining the depths of the world’s oceans for natural resources holds the promise of “significant wealth”, but he also warned that this could very easily lead to “the systemic collapse of our ocean system”. ecosystems, leading to mass starvation and massive environmental destruction.”
Ecologists warn ocean ecosystems could collapse
Could create ‘abject economic suffering’
This, in turn, would worsen the impacts of climate change and cause “abject economic suffering for peoples and communities who do not benefit from mining activities but feel their direct impacts”, he said.
The alliance was initially set up by the government of Palau, another Pacific island state that is at risk of being severely impacted by deep sea mining, in conjunction with the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition and the World Wildlife Fund. . It has since been joined by Fiji and Samoa.
Signatory nations have been urged to act after Nauru in June 2021 triggered a rule under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that requires the regulator, the International Funds Authority (ISA), to approve a plan for the exploitation of seabed resources under the rules in force within two years of the request. As a result, the ISA could grant permission to start operation in June next year.
The private company that would immediately benefit from the mining permits is Nauru Ocean Research Inc., a subsidiary of Canadian mining startup The Metals Company (TMC). He has long insisted that the deep sea must be mined for minerals such as cobalt, copper, nickel and manganese to meet the demand for crucial materials for electric cars and other modern technologies. .
These minerals are available in large quantities distributed throughout the world’s deepest seabed in the form of potato-sized rock concretions called polymetallic nodules.
Material recycling as an alternative
Environmentalists say that instead of mining the seabed – and potentially causing irreparable damage to marine biodiversity and harming global fisheries – industries should source metals from the circular economy, it’s i.e. recycle them from electronic waste.
To date, the ISA has granted 31 permits to countries and private companies to explore the resources, but not to commercially exploit those identified. Duncan Currie, an environmental lawyer who advises the High Seas Alliance, hopes enough support can be mustered in the coming months to force the ISA to impose a moratorium on mining.
The consequences of not having a moratorium could be extremely serious, he told DW.
“The ‘collector’ will dig into the seabed, we are told, releasing plumes of sediment that disturb the seabed,” he said. “These plumes will likely travel considerable distances, possibly hundreds of miles, smothering life on and near the seafloor.”
Once the nodules are brought to the surface, additional sediment will be released into the ocean, creating additional plumes that experts say will stretch 1,400 kilometers and remain suspended for up to a year.
Noise from the operation will affect marine mammals and other marine species hundreds of miles away, Currie said, with permits currently being considered to last 30 years but with “almost automatic” 10-year renewals.
A “deeply felt” public opposition
“I think public opposition to deep sea mining is widespread and deeply felt,” Currie said. “The challenge is to translate this opposition to the ISA, and the danger is that mining interests will push their agenda through legal machinations.”
“The Convention on the Law of the Sea was put in place some forty years ago, in 1982, and was amended at the initiative of developed States in 1994”, he recalled. “Seabed mining is highly legalistic, based on these two international agreements, regulations and contracts, and once started it will be extremely difficult to stop. This will set off a one-way race to the bottom of the sea: once the green light is given by regulation, new harmful industrial activity will be underway.”
Currie said he hopes the opposition can be galvanized in the same way international resistance halted mining plans in the Antarctic wilderness.
“A moratorium is essential: without it, history will judge the world harshly,” acknowledged the head of the FSM Panuelo. “Drilling for oil at sea seemed like a good enough idea to those seeking wealth that they did in the Gulf of Mexico, which never had a positive impact on Louisiana fishermen who didn’t were not consulted on the work and had no agency in the decision to do so,” he pointed out. “But they certainly felt the impacts when the Deepwater Horizon spill happened in 2010.”
“It is unlikely that we can effectively manage our ocean territory without being aware of the impacts of deep sea mining, which I believe is an unsustainable solution,” he added.
Edited by: Leah Carter