Oleg Klimov / Panos | Sci Dev Net
A new international agreement is needed to police the exploitation of the deep ocean because of the rising threats of deep-sea mining and bottom trawling for fish, say scientists.
Speakers at a symposium this month (16 February) urged the UN to negotiate a new treaty for the deep ocean to supplement the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.The symposium took place at the annual meeting of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) in Chicago, United States.
The deep sea makes up about two-thirds of the world’s oceans. It begins at a depth of around 200 metres, both within and beyond zones of national jurisdiction.
But deep-sea environments are threatened by “imminent” mining and bottom trawling for fish, said the scientists at the meeting.
The UN-sanctioned International Seabed Authority (ISA) was established in 1994 to regulate mineral extraction from the deep seabed outside national zones of jurisdiction. The ISA, based in Jamaica, has so far approved 19 mineral prospecting licences in the deep ocean around the world for companies and government bodies, including China and India, as well as those sponsored by the Pacific island nations of Kiribati, Nauruand Tonga [See map]. The Cook Islands have also applied to explore deep-sea mining opportunities.
But the ISA does not regulate marine genetic resources, which could be valuable to the medical and pharmaceutical sectors, or biodiversity conservation, says Lisa Levin, director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity & Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, United States.
The new treaty would ensure that financial gains made from marine genetic resources are shared between all nations, and that new mechanisms are developed to transfer marine technology and developcapacity in this field, says Gjerde.
Significant deep sea resources are often found within the deep seas of the developing world, often within the nations’ exclusive economic zones [that stretch up to 200 nautical miles from their shore] of those countries, says Levin.
The scientists at the meeting also warned that extracting minerals and precious metals from the deep sea could cause catastrophic long-termdamage to marine ecology unless managed carefully.
New technology, dwindling land-based resources and high commodity prices mean that deep-sea mining is not only feasible, but imminent, says Pendleton.
New mining ventures are underway off various Pacific islands and off the African coast, as well as on the international seabed area that lies outsidenations’ jurisdiction, says Gjerde.
Canadian company Nautilus Minerals had planned to mine hydrothermal vents in Papua New Guinea, but this has been delayed, says Levin.
And the Namibian government is considering leasing the deep sea bottom in its national waters for phosphate mining, although last September it placed an 18-month moratorium on all mining decisions, while it gathers new information, she adds.
The key is to identify places where mineral wealth is high and ecological impacts are low and target mining there, says Pendleton.
Deep-sea trawling for fish has already had terrible long-lasting impacts on the deep sea, says Gjerde.
The deep sea fish populations are quickly depleted because the fish aggregate, which makes them easy to catch, and they are slow growing, living over one hundred years, says Levin.
One-fifth of the world’s continental margins, an area the size of the United States and Canada combined, have already been trawled, she adds.