Deep sea decision makers must listen to coastal communities

Dumbo octopus – Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2019 Southeastern U.S. Deep-sea Exploration

In March 2024, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) – a little-known intergovernmental body that ‘manages’ the international seabed – will meet to discuss the future of our shared global ocean. During ISA talks last year, states resisted pressure from mining companies to open the ocean for mining and agreed to a pause until clear regulations are in place. They also committed to discussing a temporary suspension of deep-sea mining this year, but applications for commercial mining could technically still be made. Last year may have been a first win for those opposing deep-sea mining, but the battle isn’t over yet.

Benthocodon hyalinus jellyfish – Image courtesy of Caitlin Bailey, GFOE, The Hidden Ocean 2016: Chukchi Borderlands.

Proponents of deep-sea mining argue that it is the only way to address the ballooning demands of the green transition by providing an additional source of minerals for products like electric car batteries and renewable energy installations. However, this is a false narrative driven by commercial mining interests. Our research indicates that demand can be met by new battery technologies, improved recycling and a shift towards a circular economy, where we live within the planet’s boundaries rather than relentlessly exploiting every ecosystem. 

The destruction and pollution caused by deep-sea mining would disrupt precious marine ecosystems and wipe out irreplaceable wildlife. It could also directly harm fisheries, as some overlap with deep-sea mining target areas. This would have a knock-on effect on coastal communities already struggling with the impacts of climate breakdown. 

Crucially, deep-sea mining would enrich companies from richer Western countries at the expense of people in developing states. This happened when Papua New Guinea’s attempt to start deep-sea mining collapsed in 2019. The country was left accountable for a $120m loss – equivalent to around a third of its annual health budget.

It’s no surprise that many people from small islands have spoken out against deep-sea mining, but it’s not just the flow of profits they are uncomfortable with. Solomon Pili Kahoʻohalahala, known as Uncle Sol, is a seventh-generation Indigenous native Hawaiian descendent and the current native Hawaiian Elder of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument Reserve Advisory Council. He is one of many Indigenous leaders and activists fighting to stop deep-sea mining before it irrevocably changes the cultures of local communities.

Uncle Sol © EJF

In Hawaii, there is a legend that a source from the deep sea “formed the Earth and all creatures”. The deep ocean is a respected ancestor, says Uncle Sol.  “If mining companies start using the ocean floor for profit, they do so knowing that they are decimating sacred and cultural connections,” he told us

Alanna Smith, Director of the Te Ipukarea Society in the Cook Islands, emphasises the devastating impact deep-sea mining could have on the livelihoods of island people. The government supports the industry because the waters of the Cook Islands host the minerals mining companies seek. Alanna highlights the strong dependence on fisheries, which provide 50-90% of animal protein for people across Pacific island territories. These are the same fisheries that mining is likely to affect.

Alanna Smith © EJF

“We are caretakers of our environment, charged with ensuring these resources are around for future generations to benefit from. More time is needed to ensure more independent environmental research to better to understand the many underexplored mysteries of our deep-sea”, Alanna says.

This year’s ISA meetings provide a timely opportunity for the delegates to heed the mounting wave of opposition to DSM from grassroots communities calling for environmental justice and greater protection for our deep ocean biome. Failure to do so would bring the destructive industry a step closer to becoming a reality, benefiting the pockets of a handful of companies at the planet’s expense.

Delegates at the ISA must push for a moratorium, and governments worldwide must join the 21 states that have already taken a position against deep-sea mining. We can address the growing demands of the green transition while prioritising the rights of Indigenous and coastal communities, the survival of irreplaceable ecosystems and protecting ocean wildlife. Deep-sea mining has no place in a world where sustainable clean energy and environmental justice co-exist – the world we should all be working towards.

Steve Trent, CEO of the Environmental Justice Foundation

Steve is EJF’s founder and for the past two decades, he has created strategies and led investigations, high-level campaigns and grassroots programmes to protect biodiversity and defend our shared human right to a secure natural environment.

This is a guest blog and may not necessarily represent the views of other RISE UP network members or RISE UP as a whole. It is only through open dialogue and a diversity of ideas that we will arrive at the solutions necessary to restore Ocean health.

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Date Published: 13th March 2024