The Beacon

Deep Sea Mining Threatens European Oceans

Deep-water sea fan (Iciligorgia schrammi) in the Elbow Reef, Key Largo, Florida during a 2010 Oceana Latitude Expedition off the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo: Oceana / Carlos Minguell)

We used to think of the ocean floor as a barren desert — devoid of life and unimportant to ocean health. But as scientists explore the depths, they are discovering that the deep ocean seafloor is home to many thriving and diverse ecosystems. Fields of tube worms sway around smoking hydrothermal vents, while fields of cold-water corals blanket the slopes of underwater ridges and mountains. These biodiversity “hot spots” provide shelter, protection, and breeding areas for many marine species. Unfortunately, these biodiverse places could soon be destroyed by deep-sea mining.

The European Commission listed deep sea mining as one of the sectors that needs to be further developed for Europe to support sustainable growth in the marine and maritime sectors. In this strategy, called “Blue Growth,” the Commission describes deep sea mining as a key element for a sustainable maritime economy; in an effort to harvest precious minerals and valuable metals, however, they are ignoring the irreversible damage to deep-sea habitats.

Deep-sea mining—also called seabed mining—uses massive, automated machines called Bulk Cutters and Auxiliary Cutters, which can be compared to underwater bulldozers and robots, to literally rip up the seafloor and vacuum large amounts of rock and sediment to extract minerals and metals from the excavated seabed. Since this process occurs under water, a lot of these sediments are thrown from the mining site into the water column and float away, releasing hazardous toxins and heavy metals into the area. This pollution is tragic for deep-sea life, because these organisms typically are filter-feeders and grow slowly and mature late when compared to other species, making it hard for these species to recover from drastic changes in their environment.

Scientists still have much to learn about life in the ocean’s depths, so the potential impacts of deep-sea mining remains uncertain. Destroying these habitats could deprive us of important scientific information, or even cause the extinction of some species. Worse, many of these Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VMEs) are recognized for their uniqueness and must be protected under international conventions, like Marine Protected Areas. Additionally, destruction of these ecosystems will have a wide-spread effect on ocean health, posing a great risk to marine resources, including commercial fishing.

The European Commission is now undertaking a feasibility study to understand the technological, economic, and environmental aspects, and intends to release a focused plan to develop deep-sea mining in Europe. Oceana is worried that the Commission is focusing too much on economic development and growth at-any-costs, while overlooking the environmental risks as well as the social acceptability of the issue. We believe it is a choice for society to decide about seabed mining, and Oceana is determined to make civil society’s voice heard.

You can add your own voice here and help make the European Commission aware of the risks of deep sea mining.


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