Nii Odunton, Secretary-General of the International seabed Authority (ISA), outlines to Global Island News the research to date that has informed the deep sea mining landscape.
Can you provide an outline of research to date to determine the impact of deep sea mining, with a view to assessing and mitigating its effects?
In the absence of test mining or commercial mining, the available information is from “Benthic disturbance experiments”. A number of these were conducted, starting in 1975 when the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration initiated the Deep Ocean Mining Environmental Study (DOMES). This five year project was organised as a collaborative effort between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and four US registered industrial groups. The project consisted of two phases: the first, to characterise the region environmentally, and the second, to monitor the effects of industrial pilot-scale equipment tests therein. The specific objectives of the project were to develop:
(1) environmental baselines (biological, geological, physical, and chemical) at the three sites chosen as representative of the range of environmental parameters likely to be met during mining;
(2) predictive capabilities, to identify potential environmental effects of nodule recovery; and
(3) an information base, to prepare environmental guide-lines for government and industry.
As a part of the second phase, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitored test mining operations conducted by the industrial groups in the Pacific Ocean in the late 1970s. For example, Ocean Mining Associates conducted on 10 November 1978 an integrated test of approximately twenty hours of continuous mining at 15,000 feet, during which time 400 tons of nodules were collected and lifted to the ship as various system concepts were examined. Ocean Mining Associates employed a passive towed collector unit for the tests, while another industry group, Ocean Minerals Company, used an active self-propelled collector unit for its integrated tests. In 1981 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published the first comprehensive Deep Seabed Mining Environmental Impact Statement.
In the absence of test mining or commercial mining, the available information is from “Benthic disturbance experiments”.
The Deep Ocean Mining Environmental Study concluded, inter alia, that there was a need to look more closely into the environmental impacts on the deep seabed — including the effects of the collector unit in and near the mining tracks, and the effects of the benthic (bottom) plume on benthic life, and its food supply, away from the mining actiions vity.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration worked actively to establish collaboration with other countries. Research collaboration has been established with Japan, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and France; an exchange arrangement for scientists with the German project (see below) has taken place. The collaborative project between the USA and the Commonwealth of Independent States is a large-scale Benthic Impact Experiment.
The German ‘Disturbance and Recolonisation Experiment’ (DISCOL) was conducted in 1989 as the first long-term, large-scale disturbance recolonisation project. The programme was financed by the German Ministry of Research and Technology and co-ordinated by the University of Hamburg. After obtaining pre-impact baseline environmental data, an area of 10.8 sq. km. in the eastern South Pacific was disturbed in February–March 1989 using a ‘plough harrow’ device. An initial post-impact sampling series was carried out immediately after disturbance; the site was revisited again for renewed post-impact sampling six months after the disturbance. Plans called for repeated visits to the site at two-year intervals to monitor the anticipated slow recolonisation process until the area was inhabited by a new, stabilised community.
Other experiments include the Japan Deep-Sea Impact Experiment (JET) which was conducted in the western part of its license area in the Central Pacific Ocean over twelve years, from 1989; the Indian Deep-sea Environmental Experiment (INDEX) starting in 1995 in the Central Indian Ocean basin; the Russian Experimental Polygon (REP) to create a relatively large disturbance of the upper sediment layer by using a mining-simulator device, and to investigate the ecosystem response to this disturbance immediately and some years afterward, and the Chinese Environmental impact studies and equipment tests (EISET) in a lake 120 metres deep.
I believe that SIDs are taking the steps required to secure the necessary environmental due diligence to enable them to enjoy the benefits that will accrue from the common heritage of mankind.
How does the ISA Endowment Fund promote collaborative marine scientific research?
The International Seabed Authority’s Endowment Fund promotes and encourages the conduct of collaborative marine scientific research in the international seabed area through two main activities
By supporting the participation of qualified scientists and technical personnel from developing countries in marine scientific research programmes and activities, and
By providing opportunities to these scientists to participate in relevant initiatives.
The International Seabed Authority does not initiate the research. It identifies and obtains proposals from researching institutions who are undertaking research activities of relevance to the Authority’s work and who indicate the availability of berths and of spaces for researchers from developing countries. If applicants from developing countries apply to participate in the research programmes offered and are qualified, the fund supports their participation.
With such an intoxicating medley of rewards now within striking distance, have you been given any cause for concern that island governments may not undertake sufficient environmental due diligence, or consult as necessary on proposed DSM activity, in their eagerness to access these new riches?
The Cook Islands, Tonga, and Fiji have enacted legislation to govern deep seabed mining, and other island governments are in the process of developing theirs. The Deep Sea Minerals (DSM) Project – a collaboration between the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and the European Union is helping Pacific Island countries in their policy, legislation and regulation development, with particular attention to the protection of the marine environment. Member countries of this project include: Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. The Project was established in 2011 and will run until 2016.
In a nutshell, I believe that SIDs are taking the steps required to secure the necessary environmental due diligence to enable them to enjoy the benefits that will accrue from the common heritage of mankind.
For more information, please visit www.isa.org.jm.