(report of the DSCC in conjunction with Seas At Risk)
The European Parliament adopted a resolution on 16 January on ocean governance which addressed the growing international interest in deep-sea mining. This was followed by a debate at an event hosted by Members of European Parliament (MEPs) Linnéa Engström and Marco Affronte on 24 January entitled ‘Bring deep-sea mining to the surface! Environmental considerations and a need to shed light on decisions’.
The Parliament resolution contained several provisions on seabed mining including a call for greater transparency by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) – the international organization establish by the UN Law of the Sea treaty to regulate seabed mining in the international areas of the world’s oceans. The Parliament called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until all possible risks have been studied and understood and stressed the importance of ensuring transparency, public access to information, stakeholder involvement, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters.
It also called on EU Member States and the European Commission to work through the ISA to ensure the capacity to assess environmental impacts of deep-sea mining activities and to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment from harmful effects of mining activities as required under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea.
The debate at the European Parliament on 24 January involved panelists from the European Commission, the scientific community, the deep-sea fishing industry, the regional government of the Azores Islands and the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. DSCC member organization Seas At Risk also attended the event as did a number of MEPs, officials from EU institutions and Member States, fishing industry representatives, scientists and at least one EU based company investing in deep seabed mining.
Professor Phil Weaver opened the discussion with an overview of current scientific knowledge of the risks of deep-sea mining. From 2013 – 2016 Professor Weaver led the EU funded Midas Project, one of the largest projects of its kind, which looked into the potential environmental impacts of mining in the deep sea. The European Commission and Azorean government representatives both questioned the need for deep-sea mining. Both sides advocated a precautionary approach and stated that critical raw materials would be more effectively addressed through the circular economy.
Mr. Bernhard Friess (DG of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries) emphasised the Commission’s commitment to the protection of the deep sea, illustrated by its strong stance on banning deep-sea trawling. Although deep-sea mining is listed as a priority in the EU’s blue growth strategy, Mr. Friess reiterated the conclusion of the Joint Research Centre’s report ‘Critical Raw Materials and the Circular Economy’, that the use of critical raw materials is far from fully circular in the EU economy. Many improvement opportunities exist in recycling, re-use, product lifetime extension and new business models. A wider public debate about the need for deep-sea mining is also needed, he said.
Mr. Iván López from Europêche stated that the recent deep-sea fisheries regulation adopted by the European Union, including the deep-sea trawling ban in EU waters, would be undermined if deep-sea mining were to be permitted. He recommended the creation of a scientific and stakeholder forum, similar to the regional advisory councils established for fisheries.
Matthew Gianni of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition stressed the importance of the European Parliament resolution in its call for greater transparency by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and that the ISA ensure effective protection of the marine environment as is its obligation under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. He highlighted recent correspondence published in Nature Geoscience that deep-sea mining will cause inevitable biodiversity loss. He asked whether the loss can be justified given that deep-sea ecosystems are already under stress from climate change impacts, pollution, plastics and other threats, and in light of commitments made by the EU and others through the UN Sustainable Development Goals to prevent negative impacts and restore and strengthen the resilience of marine ecosystems. He also urged the Belgium government, which is sponsoring a claim with the ISA for a Belgian company to explore for minerals in the central Pacific Ocean, to make public an environmental impact assessment that will be submitted this year to the ISA for testing of mining equipment in the area. His presentation can be found here.
Mr. Frederico Cardigos, representing the Azores regional government, made an impassioned plea for a precautionary approach to deep-sea mining (the Portuguese government is currently considering a deep sea mining application in Azorean waters by the Canadian company Nautilus). He highlighted the scientific uncertainty about the environmental impact of exploration and exploitation, calling such activity an unacceptable risk. In view of the early stages of EU and Member State action towards a fully implemented circular economy, deep-sea mining will not be necessary in the immediate future, he said. ‘With science, with clarity and with participation, our position might change but – for now – deep-sea mining? No, thank you.’
Mr. Cardigos went on to draw attention to the Marine Park of the Azores, which encompasses a buffer area around hydrothermal vents in order to protect these vulnerable marine ecosystems from potential deep-sea mining activities. Of this regional ‘red line’, he said, ‘The Marine Park of the Azores, in a sense, is our soul and we are committed to preserving our soul.’
With a number of participants challenging the need for deep-sea mining, the debate marked a shift away from the prevailing narrative. There was a clear message to the Commission to step back from deep-sea mining as a priority blue growth sector and instead to focus on sustainable use of minerals. A crucial next step is to establish a mechanism for public debate and stakeholder involvement in the EU’s policy development on deep-sea mining.
©Image courtesy of Expedition to the Deep Slope 2007, NOAA-OE