Opinion | The Dangers of Mining the Deep Ocean

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We’ve seen that the food web is complex and interconnected, linking ultimately to commercial fisheries worth billions of dollars. Any toxins in the environment or diet of these fish will end up on our dinner plates. Amazingly, about three-quarters of the animals in the water column can make their own light, and they use this bioluminescence to find prey and mates, while avoiding predators by using glowing camouflage as a cloaking device.

As a result of the mining, animals already living near their physiological limits would be eating mouthfuls of poisonous dirt for breakfast, respiring through clogged gills and squinting through a muddy haze to communicate.

Based on predicted discharge rates, a single mining ship will release between two million and 3.5 million cubic feet of effluent every day, enough to fill a fleet of tanker trucks 15 miles long. Now imagine this process running continuously for 30 years — the lifetime of a mining lease. Most important, these sediment plumes will not respect the neat boundaries defined by a permit. Regulatory buffer zones set up around the Cook Islands, for example, extend only 50 nautical miles — insufficient to protect their reefs, fisheries and tourism from these expanding sediments, which are projected to travel hundreds of miles.

The companies and governing agencies that stand to profit from mining activities are based in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia. They are geographically, politically and economically removed from the small island nations that will bear the brunt of the consequences. While government leaders may welcome mining for economic gain, it is the Indigenous people and local communities on these islands who are often without a meaningful voice in decisions that will weigh heavily on their future. In the United States, which is not a member of the nearly 170-nation seabed authority, the Trump administration is exploring whether it can open portions of existing national marine sanctuaries to mineral extraction.

Most deep-sea mining plans predict plume discharges to be located around 3,300 feet down, even when mining operations are taking place on a seabed more than 16,000 feet deep. This may be out of sight from the surface, but it is not deep enough to avoid potentially disastrous effects on deep-ocean ecosystems and food webs. When mining operations commence, companies must shoulder the additional expense of depositing their effluent as close to the original seafloor disturbance as possible. Doing so will minimize harmful effects of both the sinking and drifting plumes on water-column life and reduce their spread to nearby ecosystems.

Historically the deep sea has been considered remote and largely devoid of life, and to have an inexhaustible capacity to absorb our pollution. In reality, these deep water ecosystems are fragile, diverse and connected to us. Mining operations must reduce their impact on the whole of the ocean and not just the seafloor. The dazzling treasure of oceanic biodiversity has unfathomable value as well.


Steven H.D. Haddock is a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. C. Anela Choy is an assistant professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

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