Today’s scientists know more about space than the deep sea. This ecosystem is the largest on the planet, comprising more than 90% of the marine environment. In 1970, the sea depths were declared “Common Heritage of Humanity” to be preserved for peaceful purposes.
Despite this recognition, mining of this fragile and critically important environment could begin as early as 2023. The impacts of deep sea mining (DSM) have the potential to be devastating and global. In 2019, despite warnings from scientists and civil society groups around the world, the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) entered the DSM industry by sponsoring Blue Minerals Jamaica Limited (BMJ), a company registered in Jamaica.
WHAT IS DEEP SEA MINING?
The deep sea is 200 meters to 11 kilometers below the ocean surface. Until a few years ago, many thought there wasn’t much life at such extreme depths. It is home to some of the most stable and unique ecosystems on the planet, which can be as diverse as the richest tropical rainforests in the world. It plays a vital role in regulating the climate by absorbing greenhouse gases and heat produced by human activity and is already under stress from pollutants, microplastics and climate-related impacts.
It also contains deposits of copper, nickel, cobalt, silver, gold, manganese, zinc, among others, in high concentrations. DSM has been touted as essential to sustainable economic development by mining interests, including our Jamaican government (Source: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade). Others think there is no need to exploit the deep seas because adequate resources are already available.
WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL IMPACTS?
The technology to undertake the DSM is still under development. The general idea, however, is that a submersible device, the size of a bulldozer, will move in rows across the seabed sucking up mineral-laden sediment. These sediments will then be treated and the unwanted sediments returned to the sea.
Likely impacts include the death of organisms and microorganisms in the path of these machines and underwater dust storms creating sediment plumes four to five times larger than the mined area. The plume would not only affect organisms on the high seas, but also other shallow-water fisheries, as surface vessel discharge plumes can travel thousands of kilometres. The noise will likely affect marine animals that use sound to navigate (dolphins, whales and sea turtles). Since the deep sea acts as a sink for greenhouse gases and excess heat, mining could cause these gases to be released, further exacerbating the climate crisis.
Impacts on fisheries and other marine animals are unlikely to be localized. In the event of disruption to international fisheries due to DSM, distant international fishing fleets could begin to pressure Caribbean waters.
Relevant Eastern Pacific mining trials in 1989 by German researchers who simulated mining-related disturbances showed that no life returned even after 26 years (Vonnahme, TR et al , 2020).
Additionally, the DSM poses potential risks to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and poses potential risks to Goal 4 of Vision 2030 Jamaica which is “Jamaica has a healthy natural environment”, as the risks associated with the DSM are considerable. and potentially devastating.
JAMAICA AND DSM
With this understanding of the DSM and its impacts, let’s explore the connections to Jamaica. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), headquartered in Kingston, is responsible for licensing and controlling the development of mineral-related operations on the international seabed.
The 15-year contract between the State of Jamaica and Blue Minerals Jamaica (BMJ) was signed on March 1, 2021 for the exploration of polymetallic nodules in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) of the Pacific Ocean.
Although no DSM or exploration is contemplated in Jamaican waters at this time, DSM anywhere is likely to have global impacts. In addition, Jamaica, as a sponsoring state, will face liability issues. In 2019, the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) sought to clarify the Access to Information Act (ATI) to better understand what this agreement with the BMJ would mean for Jamaica. Access to the sponsorship agreement has been refused to us under article 20 of the law, for reasons of confidentiality.
A 2020 document prepared by the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) outlines that a sponsoring state is required to:
• Ensure that their subcontractor’s seabed mining activities are conducted in accordance with Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
• Implement laws and establish national administrative measures that are “reasonably appropriate” to ensure mining contractor compliance.
• Actively monitor the operations of its contractor, in coordination with the ISA, and keep legislation, regulations and administrative measures under review.
A contractor who does not fully discharge its liability could put the sponsoring state at risk, if the sponsoring state (Jamaica, in this case) fails to exercise due diligence above or fails to properly implements its obligations (such as applying the precautionary approach). If a contractor does not or cannot pay the compensation ordered and the sponsoring state does not hold adequate bonding from its contractor, the sponsoring state could be sued for compensation.
You may be wondering if the risks are the same for exploration. The potential for damage is less, but the real possible liability is that the entrepreneurs would have spent money on exploration in the legitimate hope of then obtaining a license to mine.
Odyssey Marine Exploration has identified one of the world’s largest deposits of phosphate sand on the Mexican continental shelf and obtained the concession rights to mine it. The Mexican government, however, blocked Odyssey by denying a permit due to the precautionary principle found in national and international law, including risks to sea turtles. Today, Mexico is being sued by Odyssey for no less than US$3.5 billion, through arbitration under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Recently, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Kamina Johnson Smith, announced that Jamaica would not support the DSM without the prior establishment of an appropriate regulatory framework (JIS, August 2, 2022). However, we should note that:
1. The regulatory framework is only as good as the regulator, ISA.
2. Surveillance activities on the high seas present a multitude of technical and financial obstacles.
3. Very little baseline environmental data exists to provide a basis for monitoring or creating thresholds.
In the face of the climate crisis, we must move away from technologies that could cause irreversible damage to the health of our planet. Some countries, for these reasons, advocate a moratorium or postponement of seabed mining. We believe deep sea mining is not worth the risk.
Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie, PhD, is an environmental scientist and CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust. Send your comments to [email protected]