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Micronesia joins alliance to stop deep-sea mining

Julian Ryall Tokyo
July 20, 2022

The Pacific republic has said the potential downside of massive environmental degradation outweighs the positives of extracting minerals from the depths of the ocean.

David Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia speaks in Wellington, New Zealand
Micronesian President David Panuelo warned that deep-sea mining could lead to the 'systemic collapse' of ecosystemsImage: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

The scattered islands and atolls of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) are home to fewer than 105,000 people and cover a mere 702 square kilometers (ca. 271 square miles). But the region's territorial waters sprawl across 2.6 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean, making it the 14th largest exclusive economic zone in the world. 

The ocean is the lifeblood of these relatively under-developed islands, where the average annual per capita income sits slightly below $4,000 (€3,900), but where successive governments have done what they can to protect their most important resource. So the announcement on July 10 that the FSM was joining the Alliance of Countries for a Deep-Sea Mining Moratorium, unveiled at the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon in late June, was no surprise. 

In a statement issued to DW, FSM President David Panuelo said that mining the depths of the world's oceans for natural resources offers the promise of "significant wealth," but he also cautioned that it could very easily lead to "the systemic collapse of our oceanic ecosystems, resulting in mass starvation and mass environmental destruction."

A bull shark in the Fiji Islands
Environmentalists warn that oceanic ecosystems could collapseImage: Ron and Valerie Taylor/Ardea/imago images

Could create 'abject economic suffering'

That, in turn, would worsen the impacts of climate change and bring about "abject economic suffering to peoples and communities who do not benefit from mining activities but feel their direct impacts," he said.

The alliance was initially set up by the government of Palau, another Pacific island state that stands to be severely impacted by deep-sea mining, in collaboration with the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition and the World Wildlife Fund. It has since also been joined by Fiji and Samoa. 

Signatory nations were provoked into action after Nauru in June 2021 triggered a rule within the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that requires the regulatory body, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), to approve a plan to exploit seabed resources under the terms of whatever rules are in place within two years of the application. As a result, the ISA could grant permission for exploitation to commence in June of next year. 

The private company that would immediately take advantage of mining permits is Nauru Ocean Research Inc., a subsidiary of Canadian mining startup The Metals Company (TMC). It has long insisted that the deep sea must be mined to obtain minerals such as cobalt, copper, nickel and manganese to meet demand for materials crucial for electric cars and other modern technologies. 

These minerals are available in vast quantities spread across the deepest seabeds of the world in the shape of potato-sized rock concretions known as polymetallic nodules.

Manganese nodules - deep sea treasure trove

Recycling materials as alternative

Environmentalists say that instead of mining the seabed — and potentially causing irreparable damage to marine biodiversity and harming global fisheries — industries should source the metals from the circular economy, meaning recycling it from electronic waste.

To date, the ISA has granted 31 permits for countries and private companies to explore for resources, but not to commercially exploit any that are identified. Duncan Currie, an environmental lawyer who advises the High Seas Alliance, hopes sufficient support can be gathered in the coming months to force the ISA to impose a moratorium on mining. 

The consequences of failing to have a moratorium could be extremely serious, he told DW.

"The 'collector' will dig into the sea floor, we are told, releasing sediment plumes from disturbing the seabed," he said. "These plumes will likely travel considerable distances, possibly hundreds of kilometers, smothering life on and near the sea floor."

After the nodules are brought to the surface, additional sediment will be released back into the ocean, creating additional plumes that experts have suggested will spread over 1,400 kilometers and remain in suspension for as long as a year.

The noise of the operation will affect marine mammals and other sea life hundreds of kilometers away, Currie said, with the permits presently being considered due to last for 30 years but with "almost automatic" 10-year renewals.

'Deeply felt' public opposition

"I think the public opposition to deep-sea mining is widespread, and deeply felt," Currie said. "The challenge is in translating that opposition to the ISA, and the danger is that the mining interests push through their agenda through legal machinations."

"The Law of the Sea Convention was put into place around 40 years ago, in 1982, and was amended at the initiative of developed states in 1994," he pointed out. "Seabed mining is highly legalistic, depending on those two international agreements, regulations and contracts, and once it is started, it will be extremely difficult to stop. It will trigger a one-way race to the bottom of the sea: Once the green light is given through regulations, the damaging new industrial activity will be under way."

Currie said he hopes that the opposition can be galvanized in the same way that international resistance halted plans for mining in the pristine Antarctic wilderness. 

"A moratorium is essential: Without it, history will judge the world harshly,"  FSM leader Panuelo concurred. "Sea-based oil drilling seemed a good enough idea to those seeking wealth that they did it in the Gulf of Mexico, which never positively impacted the Louisiana fishermen who were not consulted on the work and had no agency in the decision to do it," he pointed out. "But they certainly felt the impacts when the Deepwater Horizon spill occurred in 2010."

"It is unlikely we can effectively manage our ocean territory without being aware of the impacts of deep-sea mining, which I believe is an unsustainable solution," he added.

Edited by: Leah Carter