Scientists Surface Deep-Ocean Concerns at Pivotal Gathering


Among the sea of lawyers and delegates at the International Seabed Authority’s council meeting in Jamaica this March was a handful of scientists who had gone to great lengths to be there. Their mission? To make sure that the incredible sensitivity and value of the deep-ocean environment is taken into account as the ISA drafts regulations for emerging interest in mining the deep sea for valuable minerals.

Beth Orcutt, a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, was among them.

“What’s at stake is the health of the ocean,” Orcutt said. “We can’t have healthy fisheries if we destroy the bottom of the seafloor. We can’t have climate regulation if we destroy the bottom of the seafloor. We can’t learn from the genetic novelty of the organisms to develop medicines and other applications if we destroy them.”

The ISA is a United Nations-affiliated agency with jurisdiction over mineral resources on the seafloor below international ocean waters. The governing body consists of 167 member countries as well as the European Union. Two years ago, a process was triggered that will conclude this summer and open the possibility for countries to submit applications for deep-sea mining permits. One of the key purposes of this Council meeting was to consider regulations for the exploitation of minerals in the international seabed area. Draft regulations may be finalized this summer, when the ISA meets again.

Orcutt is one of only a couple dozen scientists in the world who have decided to volunteer their time to get involved with the policy decisions and ensure science isn’t sidelined as these new regulations are drafted. She was there in association with the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative, a network of global experts that seek to maintain the integrity of deep-ocean ecosystems.

Scientists in attendance sought to inform the decision makers on a number of topics – from highlighting the enormous knowledge gaps to inclusion of indigenous knowledge and cultural heritage while drafting deep-sea mining regulations.

The ISA has a mandate to manage the mineral resources on the seabed in a way that “benefits all humankind” and “ensures effective protection of the marine environment from harmful effects.” Scientists with the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative argue that it is impossible to ensure effective protection of this unique environment when so little is known. Each new venture to the deep ocean yields constellations of species that haven’t been seen or categorized, let alone fully understood.

“For instance, we’ve never seen some of these keystone deep-sea species, like corals, spawn,” Orcutt said. “So can’t determine what the thresholds of harm are to then decide how you would monitor for them.”

This lack of baseline information makes it impossible to develop viable mitigation strategies. These strategies exist in a hierarchy: from avoiding harm, to minimizing it, to offsetting harm if it takes place.

Orcutt emphasizes that in the case of the deep ocean, avoiding harm in the first place is paramount. These environments have taken hundreds of thousand or millions of years to form, and are extremely sensitive to disturbance. This means that restoration is not possible, and there is no scientific evidence that mitigation efforts – such as offsetting damage by doing something good for the environment elsewhere – are effective in the same way that actions like planting a new forest are on land.

Another important point that Orcutt and her colleagues communicated to delegates at the meeting is the importance of real-time data from contractors that is F.A.I.R. (findable, accessible, interoperable, and reproducible). This ensures that anyone is able to use the information to reach their own, reproducible conclusions versus relying on a company’s self-reporting.

“That's so essential for an offshore industry,” Orcutt said. “Think about something like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Because we all could see the video and see the satellite images, we could hold the company accountable. That’s the kind of transparency that would be needed in deep-sea mining.”

As the March council meeting reached the midway point, the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative hosted a standing-room-only side event that featured scientists reporting on latest baseline studies and impact assessments, and there were signs that their messages were starting to break through.

“It was encouraging to meet with these delegations,” Orcutt said, “and then hear them repeat our key scientific insights back in conversations and on the council floor.’”

The ISA council will reconvene in July, after the two-year waiting period expires and an application for deep-sea mining could be submitted for approval. Several days of the March meeting were spent discussing “what if” scenarios to determine how such an application would be handled.

In the meantime, Orcutt and her colleagues hope to continue the conversations with the representatives they met, and they’re already planning on having an even larger presence at the July meeting.

“I care about what happens to the deep sea,” Orcutt said. “And I want to make sure that if we make rules about how we're going to use it, that they're actually grounded in science.”

Photos: Earth News Bulletin