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Deep Sea Mining — Yet Another Threat to the Environment

Views: 933 When there is little benefit to states, particular treaties that promote the interests of humanity as a whole can usually be concluded. Such would be …

by Alan Johnstone



3 min read

When there is little benefit to states, particular treaties that promote the interests of humanity as a whole can usually be concluded. Such would be the Antarctica Treaty, the Outer Space Treaty, or the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone. If, however, there exists a potential for profit, good intentions will be tossed aside. For example, the recent failure to achieve the UN Ocean Treaty. This would have meant the further development of other international agreements, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

Healthy oceans are vital to humanity. Less than 1 percent of the high seas are protected without a new treaty. A goal is to set aside 30 percent of ocean area as some kind of marine sanctuary. But it has been pointed out that protecting 30 percent of the area of the high seas doesn’t protect 30 percent of its most valuable conservation features because of the way habitats and species are distributed.

International waters begin at the border of a state’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which by international law reaches no more than 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from its coast, and beyond any state’s jurisdiction. Sixty percent of the world’s oceans fall under this category.

Negotiators have been trying for 15 years to agree on a legally binding text for ‘the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction’ (or BBNJ).

Greenpeace had already predicted in advance that the UN Ocean Treaty talks would fail ‘because of the greed of countries in the High Ambition Coalition and others like Canada and the United States. They have prioritised hypothetical future profits from Marine Genetics Resources over protecting the oceans’.

Disagreement was partly around the sharing of possible profits from the development of genetic resources in international waters, where pharmaceutical, chemical and cosmetics companies hope to find miracle drugs, products or cures and some of the poorer states did not want to be excluded from potential windfall profits drawn from marine resources.

Dr Essam Mohammed from Eritrea of WorldFish, a non-profit research institute, said: ‘At the moment, there is a governance vacuum in the high seas, and for the ocean and developing countries, the status quo simply isn’t an option’. Advancing marine technology would lead to ‘an unprecedented race for marine resources in unregulated waters’, Mohammed warned. ‘The delay in striking a deal means high risk for the health of the ocean. All member states of the UN need to recognise the urgency to save the ocean and the people who depend on it to survive’ (bit.ly/3eiBQAz).

With many of the earlier technological difficulties overcome, maritime resources could benefit all of humanity but mining firms view the deep-sea bed as a commercial bonanza. ‘Blue acceleration’ is the term used by some ecologists to describe the rapid rise in marine industrialisation.

There exist vast untouched nodules of the most sought-after metals and minerals, nickel, cobalt, manganese and copper, on the bed of the ocean. Negotiations within the International Seabed Authority to oversee the mining also reached no agreement; which may well lead to seabed mining without any environmental protection or economic regulations in place. 

Article 76 UNCLOS allows countries to claim seabed that lies beyond the 200 miles of a nation’s exclusive economic zone and since the first application under Article 76 was made in 2001, 83 countries have staked claims amounting to more than 37 million sq km of seabed, an area more than twice the size of Russia.

Exploration permits for the international seabed already cover an area equivalent in size to France and Germany combined, and that area is likely to expand rapidly, despite the risks to biodiversity. About twenty countries are now actively engaged in deep-sea mining exploration.

Conservationists say that given the risk of habitat harm, disturbance to fish stocks, water contamination, vibration and light pollution, no new licences should be approved. Greenpeace describe deep sea mining as destructive. Excavation of mineral nodes, for example, is done by huge robotic undersea tractors that crawl across the sea floor, ‘harvesting’ the nodules by sucking them up. Studies suggest that one square kilometre of sea floor will be scoured daily, amounting to 6,000 square kilometres over the 20-year life of a mine site, leaving the area with little chance of recovering from being scraped clean.

Various coastal states have called upon the ISA to exercise caution regarding deep-sea mining, while others (Micronesia, French Polynesia and Papua New Guinea) seek to ban the seabed grabbing. But there are small Pacific island states such as Kiribati, Cook Islands, Tonga, and Nauru that view it as too lucrative a business opportunity to reject.

Many companies lack transparency and are bringing their influence to bear, operating through subsidiaries or partnering small island states. Mining firms have taken the place of government representatives at meetings of the ISA.

‘The health of our oceans is closely linked to our own survival. Unless we act now to protect them, deep sea mining could have devastating consequences for marine life and humankind…This greedy industry could destroy wonders of the deep ocean before we even have a chance to study them.’ explains Louisa Casson, of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign. She continues ‘The ISA is not fit for purpose to protect our oceans. It is more concerned with promoting the interests of the deep sea mining industry and lobbying against a strong Global Ocean Treaty’ (bit.ly/3evfxYq).

Socialism involves building democracy for our workplaces and in our local communities. But it also involves an administration on a world scale. We can envisage certain existing UN international bodies such as the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization continuing. We can expect air traffic and air safety to still be organised globally under the authority of the International Air Traffic Association ensuring that your pilot and those in air control guiding your flight are properly certified and qualified. There will remain the World Meteorological Organisation and the Universal Postal Union. World NGOs such as the Red Cross, Oxfam, War on Want, Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders could continue.

Those conspiracists on the far-right construe that this will result in a globalist one-world government. We are not talking about a world Big Brother but rather about a world cooperative commonwealth, a network of organisations operating in coordination and collaboration for the welfare of the world’s population. Socialism won’t witness the grubby squabbling that is presently taking place for the resources our planet’s seas and oceans.

Source: The Socialist Standard, October 2022

Tags: exclusive economic zone, Ocean Treaty

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