July 20, 2016

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By Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue


Thousands of meters beneath the azure ocean waters in places like the South Pacific, down through a water column saturated with life and to the ocean floor carpeted in undiscovered ecosystems, machines the size of small buildings are poised to begin a campaign of wholesale destruction. I wish this assessment was hyperbole, but it is the reality we find ourselves in today.

After decades of being on the back burner owing to costs far outweighing benefits, deep sea mining is now emerging as a serious threat to the stability of ocean systems and processes that have yet to be understood well enough to sanction in good conscience their large-scale destruction.

Critical to evaluating what is at stake are technologies needed to access the deep sea. The mining company, Nautilus Minerals, has invested heavily in mining machinery. However, resources needed for independent scientific assessment at those depths are essentially non-existent.

China is investing heavily in submersibles, manned and robotic, that are able to at least provide superficial documentation of what is in the deep ocean. Imagine aliens with an appetite for minerals flying low over New York City taking photographs and occasional samples and using them to evaluate the relative importance of the streets and buildings with no capacity to understand (or interest) in the importance of Wall Street, the New York Times, Lincoln Center, Columbia University or even the role of taxi cabs and traffic signals. They might even wonder whether or not those little two-legged things running around would be useful for something.

The International Seabed Authority, located in Jamaica and created under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is currently issuing permits for mining exploration. At the very least, might there be ways to issue something like “restraining orders” owing to the lack of proof that no harm will be done to systems critical to human needs? Or also at the very least protecting very (very, very) large areas where no mining will be allowed?

The role of life in the deep sea relating to the carbon cycle is vaguely understood, and the influence of the microbial systems (only recently discovered) and the diverse ecosystems in the water column and sea bed have yet to be thoughtfully analyzed. If a doctor could only see the skin of a patient, or sample what is underneath with tiny probes, how could internal functions be understood?

The rationale for exploiting minerals in the deep sea is based on their perceived current monetary value. The living systems that will be destroyed are perceived to have no monetary value. Will decisions about use of the natural world continue to be based on the financial advantage for a small number of people despite risks to systems that underpin planetary stability – systems that support human survival?

In the 1980s, when deep sea mining first became a hot topic, it seemed preposterous to think that humans could up-end planetary processes by burning fossil fuels, clear-cutting forests and oceans, producing exotic chemicals and materials and otherwise transforming – “taming” – the distillation of all preceding earth history for our immediate use.

Buried within the Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resources Act of 1980, US legislation sponsored by Senator Lowell Weicker about deep sea mining, there is a provision that mandates for US interests to establish “Stable Reference Zones” of equal size and quality to those proposed for exploitation. The wording in this law was taken from a resolution crafted at the IUCN meeting in Ashkabad in 1978 that I helped draft and later took to Senator Weicker’s trusted scientific advisor, Robert Wicklund, for consideration.

The IUCN World Conservation Congress occurring this September in Hawaii provides a ripe opportunity to set in motion some significant and very timely actions that could help blunt the sharp edge of enthusiasm for carving up the deep ocean. Whatever it takes, there must be ways to elevate recognition of the critical importance of intact natural systems.

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The environmental destruction caused by open mining on land is well documented.

We need technologies to access the deep sea to independently explore and understand the nature of Earth’s largest living system. But most importantly, we need the will to challenge and change the attitudes, traditions and policies about the natural world that have driven us to burn through the assets as if there is no tomorrow.

This “as if” can be a reality – or not – depending on what we do now. Or what we fail to do. However, there is undeniably cause for hope: there is still time to choose.

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49 Comments

  • I usually do not drop a great deal of comments, but i did some searching and wound up here Deep Sea Mining:
    An Invisible Land Grab – Mission Blue. And I actually do have a few questions for you if you
    usually do not mind. Could it be only me or does it give the impression like a
    few of the comments appear like written by brain dead
    people? 😛 And, if you are writing on additional sites, I would like to keep up with anything
    new you have to post. Could you list of all of your shared sites like your Facebook
    page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

  • Leroy Essek says:

    Here is one technology that can undercut the cost of oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear energy. In fact midterm next year a 1 MW power plant will produce zero pollution electricity 24/7 at 5 cents per KWH. This 1 MW zero pollution generator is fueled by any type of water and fits inside a cargo container. If polluted, toxic, sewage, brackish, ocean or pond water is used to generate a self sustaining source of \”green\” hydrogen on demand the free byproduct will be desalinated, purified distilled water from any source. Hopefully Mission Blue will learn first hand by contacting Vicky Harris the VP of Marketing for the company located at NASA\’s Kennedy Space Center called Joi Scientific.

  • WHEN ARE WE GOING TO LEARN THAT OUR WORLD IS NOT A GARBAGE CAN. OUR ANIMALS ABOVE AND BELOW THE SURFACE OF THIS PLANET ARE NOT EXPENDABLE. ONCE GONE NEVER TO RETURN. WE MUST STOP THE ASSAULT OF THIS PLANET.OUR CHILDREN AND THEIR CHLDEN DESERVE BETTER.

  • TBA21 has been an official observer at the general assembly of the ISA which is live this week. At our collateral event yesterday TBA21 Academy director Markus Reymann made a brilliant presentation of TBA21’s engagement with the oceans with The Current. following the Q&A Markus asked a packed assembly if anyone in the room could with any level of certainty demonstrate that Seabed mining could progress without any irreversable damage not only to the world’s oceans but to the global economy system and as such climate change. There was a frigid silence… A lot of sucking of teeth and shuffling of feet. If  you care about the oceans in anyway, and would like to reassure themselves that they have done something really important to save them from the madness which is otherwise about to unleash itself onto the ocean sea bed, here is your chance. So far the word “conservation” is not even mentioned once in their guidelines, and any mention of the environment so far is purely green washing. It’s all pretty much a done deal it seems but there is a 900’000 strong petition by Avaaz attached here:

    https://secure.avaaz.org/en/deep_sea_mining_loc/

    please sign and forward to all your contacts. this may just tip the balance in our favour!

    • Isaac Harp says:

      UNCLOS, ANNEX III, Article 13 reveals that ocean mining is a money-making scheme to fund the International Seabed Authority. The conflict of interest runs deeper than our deepest seas…

  • Jason Scorse says:

    Make sure you fight against the GOP and support Democrats in Nov or we can all kiss the Earth goodbye. The GOP platform wants to roll back all environmental progress 50 years.

  • Bob Wicklund says:

    Bob Wicklund says:
    Thirty-six years have passed since Sylvia brought the concept of Stable Reference Areas to the US Senate. The resultant amendment requires at least some study and research to determine the ecological safety of Deepsea Bed mining. It appears from Sylvia’s article that much has been accomplished by industry to develop the means to tear up the sea bed with little or no thought to the effects on the unique life associated with the miner’s targets.
    As far as I know the US Congress has not funded needed research since the legislation was passed.
    Should we be surprised? Of course not, over the same period we (humanity) have wrecked the global coral reefs and many of its major fish populations. The deep ocean is next.
    If the right people get into US government power this November, maybe we can get a movement to fund some research on the effects of deepsea bed mining on marine life. Thanks for the heads up, Sylvia.

  • My heart is broken. Humans have become a virus on this planet. Those of us humans who love and respect our Mother must do everything we can to protect her. I am with you, Sylvia, and everyone who stands with you. We are Mission Blue.

  • Mark Kouniotis says:

    This can not happen !!!! We need to stop this at all cost . When will people open there eyes to this , and why are we not going totally green energy ? The planet will die if something is not done to stop these greedy people who do not care about life on this planet . If we keep depending on fossil fuel we will kill every thing on this planet . Corral right now is dying at a alarming rate so wouldn’t you think that we should be stopping what we are depending on and start using are heads , and go GREEN !!!!!!!!!

  • Nikki says:

    Our government needs to step in and stop their illegal actions and do something to eliminate these companies from getting away with their destructive behavior. They don’t give a f*** about the consequences and what it’s going to do to our planet, out future generations will be the ones that suffer the impact from what they’ve done. I could never understand how money motivates them to commit these heinous acts I hope they rot for being so disgustingly greedy!!!

  • Nikki says:

    I think it’s completely appalling what these murderous greedy humans do to our planet on a daily basis!! Something needs to be done to protect our lands and seas from being raped for whatever can be ripped out of them. These big corporations don’t care about the consequences or the impact their destruction has on our planet!! We need to stand up and band together to fight for those who can not do it themselves, the animals that live in the forests they’re cutting down, on the mountains they’re blowing up and in the oceans they’re destroying!!

  • With deep gratitude to Sylvia Earle and Mission Blueʻs efforts to get the truth reported and all the many successes to protect our oceans.
    We are fighting hard to expand our ocean environment here in Hawaii and sea bed mining is a huge and overwhelming concern
    as we are just finding out about the different species that live offshore from our islands. In the last 10 years since we created a small 50 mile radius sanctuary around our Northwestern Hawaiian islands (from Nihoa to Kure Atoll) , 112 new reef fish, corals and cephalopods have been discovered, we have not even begun to scratch the surface of what is below and around our islands and this is just in the United States alone. Letʻs not let momentary greed, ruin the future for our oceans, planet and future generations. Please help us also by going to:
    http://www.expandpmnm.org and sign a petition or write to President Obama. We need your support now. Thank you.
    We will be also at the IUCN and will look forward to positive efforts to stop, reduce and define what is happening with Sea Bed Mining.

  • After reading this email my feelings are those of being terrified. How can it be allowed to dig deep in our very deep ocean waters. Too little is know. Such procedures could cause earthquake, sediment, destruction of natural habitats for all marine life where this destruction of our natural oceans could create eminent disasters. Of course there would be deaths of marine life and god knows what disasters could occur from moving the bottom surfaces. Its all terrifying, I feel so disgusted with the Humans Speices most often basing everything on money, money, money, all this must stop, we have already destroyed so much on land, so many wildlife species, also destroyed and exploited much of our marine life with wrong ways of fishing. With the Human Species at the helm, it seems sometimes that all is lost and that humanity is not going to wake up in time to save our planet

  • Judy Lister says:

    Science fiction is becoming a reality more and more by the minute! It’s horrifying!

  • Jen says:

    How is this legal… how can this possibly be allowed???!!! They will stop at nothing to destroy the land… absolutely tragic!!! And they will allow it eventually and they will put in many many loopholes with their restrictions so that the greedy will get their money at any cost. They will die before the full extent of the damage has been done and they will have had their mansions, museum of cars, and whatever they want at the cost of future generations. Hope they rot in … well you know where!

  • YES, THIS IS SHOCKING. I hope the Obama administration is doing something about this, in their work with the Chinese. If not – THEY NEED TO BE. I hope you have contact with the White House for this effort, Dr Earle. Thank you for your valuable work!

  • Rome says:

    Sylvia, I’ve known you a very long time. God bless you and Liz for bringing up such important issues all the time. Our world is not the same! ;(((. If Trump comes into office, we are all doomed with his grab on all minerals, ocean and land! Badddddddd

  • Mike says:

    That’s an abomination! Unfortunately nothing will stop China from doing what it wants. And so goes the destruction. so, so sad… 🙁

  • What can I do? This disgusts me and I feel helpless not doing anything.

  • Keep up the good work Sylvia!!! You need to write more of these and get them in mainstream publications. This is too serious to be constrained to our relatively small community. Thanks for your passion, actions and words!!!
    judy

  • Deena Brehm says:

    does this look like strip mining where everything is destroyed.

    Where in the Pacific are they looking to do this mining?

    Must humans destroy everything

  • Mark Caponigro says:

    This fascinating but disturbing summary of the deep sea situation by Dr. Earle is yet further evidence of how capitalist entrepreneurs, believing wholeheartedly in the concept of anthropocentric growth and fully relying on necessarily destructive extraction as the way to do it, are always a few moves ahead of the environmentalists. They figure out (by an abuse of science, IMHO) what they might do, then they go about doing it, and it’s only at some point down the road that our community realizes what’s going on and starts to protest.

    “Capitalism poisons everything.”

    Anyway, thanks very much to Sylvia Earle for bringing this issue to our attention, with vivid images.

    • Katie Denbo says:

      Well said!

    • Heather McFarlane says:

      I also praise Dr. Earle for exposing the potential destruction of our seabeds. I hope all followers of Mission Blue will also pay attention to the government backed “mining” of our intertide zones in order to satisfy China’s appetite for the famous geoduck clam..native to deep waters of Puget Sound, WA, but now “farmed” and harvested throughout Puget Sound’s intertide zone. At a recent meeting, one company’;s staff person mentioned that her company “farms” 11,000 acres in oysters, regular clams and geoduck clams. Until recently, geoducks were seeded in pvc tubes at 43,000 p/acre. Do the math. Applications are pending for at least two potential sites of over 20 acres each. All this taking of the intertide zone is encouraged by NOAA’s National Shellfish Initiative and our own Washington Shellfish Initiative, which was sanctioned by our Governor but never vetted by the legislative process.

  • Thank you Sylvia, for this insightful piece on deep sea mining; it terrifies me, and the fact that it is “out of sight” means it can so easily be “out of mind”. It’s time to raise public awareness about deep sea mining and the threats it poses to marine ecosystems, and life itself. We don’t know enough to proceed so recklessly. The proposed expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument is one step toward protection of large underwater seabeds. Fingers crossed for its success and potential announcement at IUCN this September.

  • Marian F. McAleenan says:

    The whole thing is fantastic.

  • Sandy says:

    Please make the health of our planet a priority

  • Undersea mining must wait for a thorough investigation of it’s environmental impact.

  • Undersea mining must wait for a thorough investigation of it’s environmental impact.

  • Juergen Teuschl says:

    This is the expression of a mental concept based on the lack of awareness for all living species which leads into the total destruction of our earth. It is fueling an economic system which is based on wasteing resources. It satifies all negative impacts on the the planet by pointing to profits. It is a shame and shows our stage of developement!

  • Robert Futgason says:

    A bull’s eye Sylvia. With the scientific capability that exists today, we need to understand as much as possible before we plunge ahead and then have to potentially spend much time, effort, money, and resources trying to correct mistakes.

    Bob Furgason

  • Laura Odonnell says:

    The destruction of the oceans is one more very large nail in earth’s coffin. I am ashamed of humans for what is happening and I feel impotent to stop it. I know many feel the same way. Fighting big money interests is daunting and often impossible. I hope more people will see how important this issue is and join in the resistance of earth’s destruction. If we keep voting out the bad politicians until we get the results we want, and if we work toward promoting renewable energy sources, we may survive.

  • This is awful let not destroy the ocean with this mining.

  • Christopher Delano Hartley says:

    Ever since hearing about this deciding up of the sea for exploitation, I was not pleased. The sea is our mother and she needs care and protection. We should recognise the rights of other life forms to exist, and stop thinking just about ourselves.

  • Robert Haile says:

    How can we devastate what we don’t even understand? Thank you for this piece. The fight for survival has many fronts.

  • John Thoma says:

    Hopefully, this will not destroy the ocean.

  • John Thoma says:

    Will this destroy the oceans as man is destroying the earth?

  • Ruark Du Toit says:

    I whole heartedly support your endevours, Dr Earle. Thank you for the awarness that you create. This is a tragedy of the commons. The ocean floor is a living organism with a multitude of life on it that took billions of years to form. No mining should be allowed until they understand the damage they could inflict.

  • Lizette Weiss says:

    Good grief! Men can invent endless ways to destroy our planet and the bounty it provides to feed humanity.

  • Lizette Weiss says:

    Good grief! What endless ways men can invent to destroy our planet and the natural bounty provided that helps feed us.

  • Lizette Weiss says:

    Good grief! Can men invent endless ways to harm the earth and destroy a resource needed to feed mankind.

  • I think what is needed is a concerted e globalffort to prevent the Seabed Athority turning exploration permissions into extraction authorisations. That has to involve NGOs and Governments. Do you and your associates have the energy and access to funds to launch that? people need to be advised what are the main minerals of current interest – not manganese and nickel now.
    best wishes to you. Sidney

  • Luciana Parazzi says:

    This is horrific, what are we doing to our planet? We have an on-going battle here in Diani Beach, Kenya, against the Chinese who want to mine our ocean sand, which would cause enormous damage to our fragile echo system.

  • Over the years I’ve seen the damage caused by companies mining on land and the campaigning to restore the environment after the fact. Under the oceans well I’ll say what they in their collective corporate minds would be thinking and saying amongst themselves what you don’t see don’t matter. But it does matter, the ecosystem on land is fragile and can be destroyed with ease. The ocean bed on the other hand is more fragile and the shared damage caused to the rest of our oceans the wildlife destroyed. No re-landscaping will help here. Allowing the corporate world to go ahead with this could potentially be the end of our oceans for good.

  • Andrew James says:

    Nautilus Minerals have stated that they are committed to being Community Accountable, Responsible Environmentally and Safe. How are they regulated and held accountable?
    The Chinese have shown complete disregard for the environment as demonstrated by the reef destruction in the South China Sea as well as their own city pollution.
    I fear for the future of the seas.

  • Anastasia Hopkinson says:

    Thank you for your to communicate plans to effectively strip mine the ocean floor. What some humans have yet to understand will affect all humans. Ocean mining must be highly regulated if not banned outright.

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"With knowing comes caring." - Dr. Sylvia Earle