Commercial-scale mining for polymetallic nodules could have a major impact on the deep-sea environment, but the effects of these mining activities on deep-sea ecosystems are very poorly known. The first commercial test mining for polymetallic nodules was carried out in 1970. Since then a number of small-scale commercial test mining or scientific disturbance studies have been carried out. Here we evaluate changes in faunal densities and diversity of benthic communities measured in response to these 11 simulated or test nodule mining disturbances using meta-analysis techniques. We find that impacts are often severe immediately after mining, with major negative changes in density and diversity of most groups occurring. However, in some cases, the mobile fauna and small-sized fauna experienced less negative impacts over the longer term. At seven sites in the Pacific, multiple surveys assessed recovery in fauna over periods of up to 26 years. Almost all studies show some recovery in faunal density and diversity for meiofauna and mobile megafauna, often within one year. However, very few faunal groups return to baseline or control conditions after two decades. The effects of polymetallic nodule mining are likely to be long term. Our analyses show considerable negative biological effects of seafloor nodule mining, even at the small scale of test mining experiments, although there is variation in sensitivity amongst organisms of different sizes and functional groups, which have important implications for ecosystem responses. Unfortunately, many past studies have limitations that reduce their effectiveness in determining responses. We provide recommendations to improve future mining impact test studies. Further research to assess the effects of test-mining activities will inform ways to improve mining practices and guide effective environmental management of mining activities.
With the transition to the commercial-scale exploitation of deep seabed minerals, the International Seabed Authority’s obligation to protect the marine environment is being tested. In The International Seabed Authority and the Precautionary Principle, Aline L. Jaeckel provides the first in-depth analysis of the Authority’s work in regulating and managing deep seabed minerals.
This book examines whether and to what extent the Authority is implementing the precautionary principle in practice. This includes the development of adequate environmental protection standards as well as procedural safeguards and decision-making processes that facilitate risk assessment and risk management. In doing so, the author offers an insightful example of how the precautionary principle can be translated into a practical management tool.
The seabed in areas beyond national jurisdiction is the common heritage of mankind (CHM), as declared in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The CHM principle requires not only the sharing of benefits (the subject of a parallel article by the authors) but also the conservation and preservation of natural and biological resources for both present and future generations. The International Seabed Authority, tasked with operationalising the CHM principle in the context of deep-seabed mining, has not yet defined which measures it will take to give effect to environmental aspects of the CHM principle. This article seeks to contribute to the discussion about the operationalization of the CHM principle by specifically examining the environmental dimension of the CHM principle. To this end, the article interprets the CHM principle in the context of sustainable development and discusses a number of potential options the Authority could consider to support the application of the CHM principle. These include: funding scientific research to increase knowledge about the deep ocean for humankind; ensuring public participation in the decision-making process; debating the need for and alternatives to deep-seabed mining; determining conservation targets and levels of harm deemed acceptable; limiting environmental impacts; preserving mineable sites for future generations; compensating humankind for environmental harm; and ensuring enforcement.
Increasing interest in deep-seabed mining has raised many questions surrounding its potential environmental impacts and how to assess the impacts’ significance. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the International Seabed Authority (ISA) is charged with ensuring effective protection of the marine environment as part of its responsibilities for managing mining in seabed areas beyond national jurisdiction (the Area) on behalf of humankind. This paper examines the international legal context for protection of the marine environment and defining the significant adverse change that can cause “serious harm”, a term used in the ISA Mining Code to indicate a level of harm that strong actions must be taken to avoid. It examines the thresholds and indicators that can reflect significant adverse change and considers the specific vulnerability of the four ecosystems associated with the minerals targeted for mining: (1) manganese (polymetallic) nodules, (2) seafloor massive (polymetallic) sulphides, (3) cobalt-rich (polymetallic) crusts and (4) phosphorites. The distributions and ecological setting, probable mining approaches and the potential environmental impacts of mining are examined for abyssal polymetallic nodule provinces, hydrothermal vents, seamounts and phosphorite-rich continental margins. Discussion focuses on the special features of the marine environment that affect the significance of the predicted environmental impacts and suggests actions that will advance understanding of these impacts.
The Framework is designed to serve as a kind of “primer” for Pacific-ACP States on setting up national DSM fiscal revenue and wealth management frameworks. Some countries in the region have already begun to set up fiscal revenue frameworks, and a number of countries already have some form of long-term saving funds, which could be used in managing DSM wealth. Other countries are only at an early stage in thinking about these issues. The aim of the Framework is to assist those countries in navigating the path of setting up and implementing national DSM fiscal revenue and wealth management systems, with an introduction to the range of issues and challenges that they will need to address.
The three main mineral types that occur in the Pacific Islands region are Seafloor Massive Sulphides (SMS), Manganese Nodules (MN), and Cobalt-rich Crusts (CRC). Although the types and sources of environmental impacts will be similar, each of these mineral deposits occur in different deep sea environments and accordingly will require different technology to recover the minerals. Such technology will influence the environmental impacts’ severity, duration and extent. As such there is no one size fits all option for environmental management, therefore each potential mine site will need to be assessed and reviewed on an individual basis and have specific impact mitigation measures. Environmental management is not only important for identifying impacts but, critically, it is important to identify when thresholds are exceeded during operations and thereby trigger protective mechanisms as necessary.
This framework discusses the above environmental management components, provides examples of wordings for States to consider using in their DSM specific policy, as well as a template for an environmental impact assessment report, and other sources of guidance. It should however, not be used in isolation, and be consulted in conjunction with the other framework documents ‘Pacific ACP-States Regional Legislative and Regulatory Framework for Deep Sea Minerals Exploration and Exploitation’, ‘Pacific ACP-States Regional Financial Framework for Deep Sea Minerals Exploration and Exploitation’, and the ‘Pacific ACP-States Regional Scientific Research Guidelines for Deep Sea Minerals’.
Mining of seafloor massive sulfides (SMS) is imminent, but the ecology of assemblages at SMS deposits is poorly known. Proposed conservation strategies include protected areas to preserve biodiversity at risk from mining impacts. Determining site suitability requires biological characterisation of the mine site and protected area(s). Video survey of a proposed mine site and protected area off New Zealand revealed unique megafaunal assemblages at the mine site. Significant relationships were identified between assemblage structure and environmental conditions, including hydrothermal features. Unique assemblages occurred at both active and inactive chimneys and are particularly at risk from mining-related impacts. The occurrence of unique assemblages at the mine site suggests that the proposed protected area is insufficient alone and should instead form part of a network. These results provide support for including hydrothermally active and inactive features within networks of protected areas and emphasise the need for quantitative survey data of proposed sites.
Seafloor massive sulfide (SMS) mining will likely occur at hydrothermal systems in the near future. Alongside their mineral wealth, SMS deposits also have considerable biological value. Active SMS deposits host endemic hydrothermal vent communities, whilst inactive deposits support communities of deep water corals and other suspension feeders. Mining activities are expected to remove all large organisms and suitable habitat in the immediate area, making vent endemic organisms particularly at risk from habitat loss and localised extinction. As part of environmental management strategies designed to mitigate the effects of mining, areas of seabed need to be protected to preserve biodiversity that is lost at the mine site and to preserve communities that support connectivity among populations of vent animals in the surrounding region. These “set-aside” areas need to be biologically similar to the mine site and be suitably connected, mostly by transport of larvae, to neighbouring sites to ensure exchange of genetic material among remaining populations. Establishing suitable set-asides can be a formidable task for environmental managers, however the application of genetic approaches can aid set-aside identification, suitability assessment and monitoring. There are many genetic tools available, including analysis of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences (e.g. COI or other suitable mtDNA genes) and appropriate nuclear DNA markers (e.g. microsatellites, single nucleotide polymorphisms), environmental DNA (eDNA) techniques and microbial metagenomics. When used in concert with traditional biological survey techniques, these tools can help to identify species, assess the genetic connectivity among populations and assess the diversity of communities. How these techniques can be applied to set-aside decision making is discussed and recommendations are made for the genetic characteristics of set-aside sites. A checklist for environmental regulators forms a guide to aid decision making on the suitability of set-aside design and assessment using genetic tools. This non-technical primer document represents the views of participants in the VentBase 2014 workshop.
Interest in mining the deep seabed is not new; however, recent technological advances and increasing global demand for metals and rare-earth elements may make it economically viable in the near future (1). Since 2001, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) has granted 26 contracts (18 in the last 4 years) to explore for minerals on the deep seabed, encompassing ∼1 million km2 in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans in areas beyond national jurisdiction (2). However, as fragile habitat structures and extremely slow recovery rates leave diverse deep-sea communities vulnerable to physical disturbances such as those caused by mining (3), the current regulatory framework could be improved. We offer recommendations to support the application of a precautionary approach when the ISA meets later this July.