SCIENTISTS HAVE warned that deep sea mining could be a “significant risk to ocean ecosystems” with “long lasting and irreversible” impacts, including risks to globally endangered species, like blue whales.

Greenpeace Research Laboratories, based at the University of Exeter, have published a new peer-reviewed paper that focuses on the overlap between cetaceans (such as whales, dolphins and porpoises) and target sites for deep sea mining, especially in the Pacific Ocean. The study says urgent research is needed to assess threats to these mammals, particularly noise pollution from proposed mining operations.

Deep sea mining companies have not yet received permission to start mining commercially, but they are pressuring governments to get the green light to do so for the first time in July 2023. If permission is granted, giant machines weighing more than a blue whale are expected to work 24-hours a day, producing sounds at varying depths that could overlap with the frequencies cetaceans use to communicate.

“Imagine if your neighbourhood was suddenly disrupted by construction work that goes on 24/7, your life would change dramatically. Your health would be compromised, you might change your behaviour to escape from it. It’s no different for whales or dolphins”, said Dr Kirsten Thompson, of the University of Exeter.

The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) between Mexico and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean provides habitat for at least 25 cetacean species, including dolphins and sperm whales, but is of extra interest to mining companies aiming to extract metals and minerals from seafloor habitats. So far 17 exploratory deep sea mining contracts have been granted in this part of the Pacific Ocean. In addition, mining companies are also looking to target seabed mineral resources in areas around other important ecosystems like seamounts and deep sea hydrothermal vents.

“Deep sea mining companies are determined to start plundering the oceans, despite little research about the impacts this industry would have on whales, dolphins and other species. Deep sea mining could damage the oceans in ways we do not fully understand – and at the expense of species like blue whales that have been the focus of conservation efforts for many years. Governments cannot uphold their commitments to protect the oceans if they allow deep sea mining to start”, said Greenpeace International campaigner, Louisa Casson.

The UK government is supporting calls for a Global Ocean Treaty – a crucial tool for achieving the globally agreed target to protect at least 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030. Negotiations will resume at the UN to finally agree this treaty next week. But on the other hand, the UK government approved exploratory deep sea mining licences granted 10 years ago to a UK subsidiary of US weapons manufacturer, Lockheed Martin and still says it supports deep sea mining. To have any credibility as a global leader when it comes to marine protection, the UK government must take a precautionary approach and support a moratorium on deep sea mining.

The International Seabed Authority, the intergovernmental body charged with regulating deep sea mining in international waters, will meet in March and July in Kingston, Jamaica. At the last round of negotiations in November 2022, governments including New Zealand, France and Chile opposed commercial pressure to allow deep sea mining to start in 2023 and instead called for a precautionary moratorium.

* Read: Urgent assessment needed to evaluate potential impacts on cetaceans from deep seabed mining here.

* Source: Greenpeace UK