Deep sea being damaged by mining, trawling
Radio National, The Science Show
March 8, 2014
The deep sea especially that around continental shelves is being damaged by trawling and mining. Often there is little legislative protection, and developing countries are targeted. Trawling is compared to clear felling of forests. Old fish, which still reproduce are scooped up. Ancient corals are destroyed. Our detailed knowledge of these areas is scant. Much is lost before it has even been described.
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Robyn Williams: And one of the reasons that the ocean is changing is because of mining and trawling. This was a feature at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago where marine scientists warned of an effect that they say we are not really noticing, yet.
Linwood Pendleton: My name is Linwood Pendleton, I’m an economist. I have three things I want you to know about what’s happening in the deep sea. First of all we have already industrialised many parts of the deep sea. We have deep sea trawling for fish, we have oil and gas extraction, but we have cables and we have barrels of waste.
What’s happening now though is we are about to move into a different era, a new era of deep sea industrialisation. Keep in mind that all industrial activity in the deep sea has some environmental impact. Even oil and gas which seems to have a relatively small footprint has a relatively large at times impact on environmental conditions. For instance, the oil and gas platforms in British and Norwegian waters alone have produced 2 million cubic feet of drilling wastes. That’s enough to fill the Hyatt Regency up to the 20th floor. That waste sits on the floor of the deep sea, smothering the organisms there. It has toxins of course. Accidents in the deep sea will happen.
The second thing I want you to know is that the goal of policy is to try to identify and stop extractive and industrial activities when the costs exceed the benefits. And the way to do that is the third point which is to develop a set of criteria that are agreed upon universally that are applied internationally in international waters and in the EEZs, the exclusive economic zones of all countries, because much of this activity is happening in the sovereign waters of developing countries and developed countries. And to have that set of criteria be very broad.
The kinds of criteria that should be included in that kind of assessment include economic criteria. Of course the benefits have to be greater than the costs, but in the deep sea the benefits have to be much greater than the costs because we don’t understand the costs yet and there are bound to be unanticipated costs. We have to always ask if there are greener substitutes outside of the deep sea.
Clearly with phosphates there are lots of places we can get phosphates from, including animal wastes, human wastes and pollutants that have already been dumped into estuaries, in places like the Baltic Sea, that are full of recoverable phosphates. The same thing holds for fish that are trawled, lots of sources of proteins outside of the deep sea. It is not so clear about minerals.
And finally, before we undertake deep sea extraction of any type, we have to understand whether or not there are representative areas that have equal ecological value that we can set aside and protect, or whether we can restore the damage that is done. So if you take these criteria, as I’ve loosely described them, and you start to apply them to deep sea activities that we’ve heard about, you find very quickly that things like deep sea trawling don’t seem to make much sense, no matter how you slice it.
Oil and gas is another matter. Oil and gas, depending on how scarce energy resources are and what the price of oil is, can make sense in the deep sea. When it comes to deep sea minerals there are no easy answers. There are different kinds of minerals with different kinds of values, different kinds of extraction techniques taking place in different parts of the ocean, and the deep sea is a huge place; 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by ocean, 70% of that is in the deep sea. So is going to be critical to have these criteria in place and apply them before the activity happens instead of afterwards.
Robyn Williams: Linwood Pendleton is director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Program at Duke Nicolas Institute in North Carolina. He talked about minerals. Which ones? Lisa Levin has a surprising list.
Lisa Levin: It’s really ironic that our alternative energy and advanced economy are a part of what’s driving us down into deep water, for example a hybrid car battery I’ve been told uses more than 10 pounds of rare earth elements, things that we are now looking to the deep sea for. All computers and cell phones use vast amounts of rare elements. There’s neodymium in magnets that run everything from our earbuds in our iPhones to wind turbines for alternative energy. So it’s really the advanced economy that’s part of what’s driving us to think about mining the deep sea now.
Robyn Williams: Lisa Levin is professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. She led the group calling for caution.
Lisa Levin: Yes, in fact most of the planet is the deep ocean, something like two-thirds of the planet is covered by deep sea, and if you want to look at it in terms of volume or habitable area, over 90% of our planet is actually deep ocean.
Robyn Williams: Sylvia Earle is famous for saying that we know rather more about the surface of planets than we do about the deep ocean. Is that right still?
Lisa Levin: That’s true for the Moon. I can’t really testify to the other planets, but we’ve seen less than 5% of the deep ocean floor, so most likely we do know more about the face of the Moon than the deep sea.
Robyn Williams: Why are you worried about the exploitation of the deep?
Lisa Levin: There are several reasons. Humans are starting to modify the deep sea without knowing what’s down there. We do know that the deep waters hold life, a high biodiversity that is very important to us in terms of the health of the planet, it sequesters carbon and cycles nutrients. We have to have healthy deep sea ecosystems in order to have a healthy ocean, and we have to have a healthy ocean to have a healthy planet.
What’s happening now is that humans are beginning to fish down there, they are drilling for oil and gas in the deep and they are starting or planning to mine for raw materials in the deep sea. And much of this happens without actually knowing what it is that is being disturbed or destroyed in the process or even how long it’s going to take to recover.
Robyn Williams: Which particular parts of the ocean are you worried about most?
Lisa Levin: I would say our continental margins get most of the human activity. About a fifth of our margins have been trawled by deep sea fishers. And the oil and gas of course, it’s common to drill at several thousands of metres. So these are the areas that are in greatest danger, but in terms of the planned deep sea mining there are a series of habitats, seamounts are being targeted for cobalt crusts, and the nodule provinces are being targeted to mine manganese nodules for cobalt, nickel, zinc, and hydrothermal vents are being targeted for the massive sulphides that host gold, silver and other precious metals.
Robyn Williams: All over the world, around America as well?
Lisa Levin: The US doesn’t have much deep sea mining targeted. Many of the first activities are targeting less-developed countries where there is little policy in place at it’s within their exclusive economic zones. For example, the western islands, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Tonga, Fiji, those countries are being targeted for mining of hydrothermal vent sulphides.
Robyn Williams: Very much in our region in the Pacific.
Lisa Levin: Yes, very much around Australia. New Zealand has lots of mining activities going on. There is interest in mining phosphates which are a little bit shallower. There is also interest in mining these off Namibia and Mexico, and iron sands, and there are other kinds of mining I think.
Robyn Williams: And what are you doing as a marine scientist to draw attention to this problem
Lisa Levin: Well, for starters we are trying to talk about it, but we also recognise that while we have many, many science gaps that need to be filled, the solutions to managing the deep ocean don’t just lie with natural scientists. We need economists, we need people involved in policy and law because there are many governance gaps in the deep sea. We need to engage stakeholders, both industry, governments and civil society. And what we are trying to do here is basically pull people together, have the conversation and begin to look at how we can have some global cooperation.
Robyn Williams: Are you finding it rather difficult because people don’t actually see this very much at all?
Lisa Levin: I think there is a lot of education and public awareness that needs to happen before we can get the public to embrace the idea of managing and preserving the deep sea. What we really need in the meantime is the precautionary approach where we minimise or avoid harm and we protect those unknown ecosystems until we have time to gather the necessary science and gather the political will to actually take care of the…
Robyn Williams: Is there much evidence of harm, or are you assuming that there might be?
Lisa Levin: Well, in the case of deep sea trawling we know there’s harm. These trawls, they are like clear cutting, they plough through, they remove all the fish, fish which might be hundreds of years old, they remove the three-dimensional structure of corals that might be thousands of years old on our margins, and they leave bare mud. And so we basically know that those populations don’t recover quickly. They are probably not sustainable, and so trawling needs to stop.
Robyn Williams: Professor Lisa Levin at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography where she is director of the Centre for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. She was speaking at the AAAS meeting in Chicago.
Integrative Oceanography Division
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
La Jolla CA USA
Director, Ocean and Coastal Policy Program
Duke Nicholas Institute for Environmental policy Solutions
Beaufort, North Carolina USA