Into the Abyss

Mining on the ocean floor may harm one of the world's least-explored ecosystems

By Ben Whitford

Deep-sea vents provide heat and nourishment for creatures on the ocean floor. They also contain valuable ores that are attracting mining companies. Photo courtesy Nautilus.

On the ocean floor, in the darkness thousands of meters below the surface, strange creatures subsist on the meager specks of food that drift down from above. But dotted across this frigid wasteland are spectacular oases of life: craggy, towering chimneys known as “black smokers” that spit superheated water from the earth’s crust out into the frozen depths. These deep-sea vents support a staggering array of bizarre faunafrom venomous snails to worms that thrive in near-boiling waterand make the sites a Mecca for marine biologists, who believe they may showcase conditions similar to those in which life on Earth began.

Increasingly, too, the smokers are attracting the attention of a new breed of industrialist: deep-sea miners, who plan to use high-tech robotic submarines to bulldoze the rocky smokers and harvest the valuable ores that lie within. That’s drawn opposition from a growing body of marine biologists, environmentalists and community organizers who say the fledgling industry is operating beyond the reach of current regulatory systemsand worry that unchecked seabed mining could have a devastating environmental impact.

Leading the charge is Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian company currently prospecting in the waters off Papua New Guinea. The company’s CEO, David Heydon, has proved a capable evangelist for the industry, raising hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital; spurred on by spiraling metals prices, Nautilus has already begun drilling and is in negotiations to build a huge mining vessel. Using cutting-edge technology adapted from the oil industry and from operations off the southern coast of Africa, where shallow-water diamond mining is already big business the company hopes to begin full-scale operations by 2010.

“And it won’t just be in Papua New Guinea,” Heydon promises. “We’re going to start a whole new industry.”

It’s a plausible claim. The density of mineral deposits in black smokers is an order of magnitude greater than anything found on land; analysts say a single claim could meet more than one percent of the global demand for copper and produce significant quantities of zinc, silver, and gold. And while Nautilus is ahead of the pack, other companies are looking to jump on the bandwagon: Neptune Minerals, a UK-registered company, is already prospecting off the coast of New Zealand, and both companies have drawn significant investment from terrestrial mining giants.

But the prospect of a maritime mining boom makes many scientists queasy. They say too little is known about the potential impact on delicate marine ecosystems.

“We simply don’t know what we’re doing,” says Rodney Fujita, a senior marine scientist at US-based advocacy group Environmental Defense and a leading voice in the burgeoning campaign against deep-sea mining. “These ecosystems were only discovered in the 1970s, and they’re completely different from anything else on the planet.”

Nautilus says its mining will likely focus on dormant vents, which are believed to be less ecologically active, but scientists fear that drifting sediment could clog active vents nearby, and perhaps disturb the subterranean water systems than feed the chimneys.

“It’s difficult to say, because we just don’t understand these habitats very well,” says Jochen Halfar, a geologist at the University of Toronto. “That can be discovered only during the first mining efforts.”

Halfar also warns that sediment plumes and mineral spills could be carried long distances by submarine currents, while the process of pumping ores to ships waiting above could change the nutrient balance in surface waters, potentially disrupting delicate ecosystems. That’s sparked opposition to Nautilus’ operations from coastal communities in Papua New Guinea, where villagers fear the industry could harm the reefs and fisheries upon which they depend. “The indigenous tribal people … are calling for a definite ‘No!’ to exploration or mining near their island,” says Wenceslaus Magun, an activist from Bagabag Island in the north of the country.

Efforts to regulate off-shore mining have proven problematic. The International Seabed Authority, an offshoot of the UN, has jurisdiction over international waters, but so far Nautilus and the handful of other companies involved in deep-water prospecting have taken pains to stay within national boundaries. That means they’re subject to national mining codes, which are often weaker and aren’t always designed to handle off-shore activity.

“We’re particularly concerned about Papua New Guinea, because they have a very poor track record with terrestrial operations,” says Halfar. “Much more pressure is needed.”

Nautilus has sought to dampen criticism by commissioning a range of impact assessments, and observers say that so far the company appears to be taking its environmental obligations seriously. But without meaningful government regulation, critics warn, there’s no guarantee that Nautilus or its successors will continue to act responsibly as the industry grows.

“We’re right at a crossroads here, with technology developing much faster than regulatory policy,” says Fujita. “There’s going to be a free-for-all if countries don’t get it together and impose standards before this industry takes off.”

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