Deep Sea Mining – The Cook Islands Context

The Ocean Connects Us All

This is the first in a series of articles by Te Ipukarea Society on Deep Sea Mining within the context of the Cook Islands, as published in the Cook Islands News.  We are grateful to our UK based volunteer Nicholas Kirkham, for his assistance with this series.

In the ocean everything is connected. The fluid movement of her currents carries both marine life, along with rubbish and pollution, with no regard for borders or boundaries. The oceans connect us all to each other and to the marine ecosystems that we depend on, and exploit.

These days you would think it unlikely that a part of our planet could still be described ‘the last frontier’ since most places have been explored, studied and their role in the larger ecosystem is known. None of that is true of the deep-sea. Humans have only studied a tiny percentage of the abyssal depths of our planet and the majority remains unknown. Humanity knows more about the moon than it does the deep seabed.

Oceans account for roughly 70% of the Earth’s surface. About 90% of the ocean lies deeper than 200m - and is considered the deep sea. This vast deep ocean is the largest area on Earth and, despite being the least studied, is known to contain high levels of marine biodiversity.

The deep sea is a climate regulator. It is where the surface of the ocean is cooled, calmed and recharged. In the face of climate change, it is important to preserve these natural defenses against global temperature increase.

The deep seabed also contains mineral deposits of Iron, Copper, Manganese, Cobalt, Nickel, Titanium, Rare Earth Elements, and others. Formed over millions of years, these deposits are home to a myriad of marine organisms, many still unknown to us. For most of human history these deposits have remained inaccessible and the deep seabed has been left largely untouched by humankind.

Yet, despite their remoteness the oceans have already been heavily impacted by humans, especially through climate change. Cumulative pressures include increasing ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, overfishing, plastic pollution and the rapid melting of sea ice at both of our poles.

Deep Sea Mining (DSM) is poised to become the newest marine industry in an already over-taxed ocean system. Due to increased global technological demand, various countries (including the Cook Islands) and private sector mining companies have begun racing to establish a commercialized system of mining the deep seabed, in both national and international waters. The Cook Island Seabed Minerals Authority is currently developing legislation and regulations to manage the exploitation of seabed minerals within the Cook Island’s jurisdiction.

As with any marine extractive industry, DSM risks causing permanent, irreversible damage to our oceans. The unique challenge is the lack of understanding of the deep-sea environments that make up and surround the areas of interest. While we do know a little about value of the minerals in the deep ocean, we cannot yet place a value on the ecological services it provides us now. Nor do we know the potential benefits, including medicine, that could be derived from deep sea biodiversity in the future. We have not had enough time to understand the impacts of mineral extraction, sediment plumes in the water column or the impact of permanent deep-sea ecosystem destruction and loss.

The question then becomes: can we risk DSM at this time?

International efforts to delay the commencement of this destructive industry have resulted in a call for a 10-year moratorium or ban on mining activities. A moratorium would be in line with the United Nation’s proclamation for a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). The upcoming decade will provide local and global communities with the time and focus necessary to establish environmental baselines in the deep seas and fill in some of the current knowledge gaps. An increase in understanding will provide leaders and decision makers with sufficient knowledge to guide possible future mining activities based on a precautionary approach that ensures the preservation of the marine environment.

Without more data and a clearer understanding of deep-sea environments, DSM activities could cause damage that an already over-stressed ocean cannot recover from.

Note: references available on request

The deep oceans are teeming with life not found anywhere else on the planet. These are deep-sea stars living in the dark depths of the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2017.  The top of a craggy pinnacle about two meters tall supports a dense community of orange, suspension-feeding, brisingid sea stars and, at the very top, a gorgonocephalid basket star.