SPC Geoscience Division


Deep sea mining or fisheries? Scientists say both can operate side by side

E-mail Print PDF

By Anouk Ride & Chelcia Gomese, Islands Business, November 2013

As interest in deep sea mining grows, one question that comes up time and time again is what impact would deep sea mining have on fisheries? Deep sea mining is a new industry as opposed to fisheries, which has long been a leading source of government income, exports, jobs and food security. So naturally people want healthy fisheries more than any new and potentially risky, extractive industry to go ahead. But do you have to decide between one or another?

The answer seems to be no, according to experts. “It is not anything like a case of fish OR mining: both can easily operate side by side because mining at sea depths of 1500 to 5000 metres will not affect fishing near the surface waters. Good management can allow both to coexist,” says Professor Mike Petterson, Director, Applied Geoscience and Technology Division of the SPC (Secretariat of the Pacific Community).

Dr Malcolm Clark, Principal Scientist at New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) explains in more detail: “The main Pacific fisheries are pelagic, with skipjack, bigeye, yellowfin and albacore tuna extending to depths of about 300 metres. “Deep snappers are found closer to the seafloor, to depths of about 400 metres. Other deep sea commercial species such as alfonsino and bluenose can go deeper still, to 700 metres.

“The main potential seabed mineral resources in the western Pacific occur deeper than these fisheries: seafloor massive sulphides at 1000 metres and deeper, and manganese nodules at around 4000 metres. “Many of the most damaging impacts of seabed mining (the physical disruption and dense sediment plumes generated) will occur at the seafloor, and in most cases this will be too deep to directly affect Pacific Islands fisheries.”

However, that does not mean there is nothing living down there. Marine scientists are still learning about the hundreds of new and unusual organisms that depend on hydrothermal vents for life. These new species include giant mussels that are the size of plates and mouthless tube worms that can reach several metres in length.

Dr Ray Binns, Honorary Research Fellow at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO—Australia’s national science agency), advises caution around hydrothermal vents: “There’s a lot of concern about the fauna, the biota, and if people are to start mining those, then it’s gotta be done in a responsible way that’s not going to wipe them out, basically.”

Closer to the surface, Clark, says the risks can be managed but need to be understood before deep sea mining starts: “It is important to ensure that mining doesn’t occur in known spawning areas or regions where small fish are abundant (“nursery grounds”). “Knowledge of the nature and extent of sediment plumes generated by the seafloor mining operation must be assessed before mining starts. “The discharge of processed waters also needs to be carefully understood, and should occur deeper than the depth of fisheries (and other important animals (other fish species, sharks, marine mammals, etc).”

Maurice Brownjohn, Commercial Manager of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (or PNA), which manages the world’s largest sustainable tuna purse seine fishery across eight Pacific Islands countries, describes the risk to tuna fishing from deep sea mining in one word: “Minimal,” then adds: “Provided it is regulated. Most deep sea mining sites are only as large as a few football fields and have minimal tailings. “If it is regulated, it will have less environmental impact than submarine volcanoes for instance. But it is important governments set minimum terms and conditions and enforce standards for exploitation.”

While such questions are still being explored about the impact sea bed mining will have on the seafloor, Dr James Hein, senior scientist of the United States Geological Survey, said many of the metals found in the deep ocean can provide environmental benefits such as green technology: “These deposits are very rich and almost all metals and all of the rare metals, particularly, for example, tellurium, which is very important in solar cell industry for a petroleum cadmium alloy, which is the best substance for transforming sunlight into electricity. And these deposits, these ferromanganese crusts in the deep ocean are the largest source of tellurium on earth.”

Representatives from regional agencies giving advice on both fishing and mining agree that there is a lot of misunderstanding about deep sea mining and there is a need for awareness of the general public. Then those Pacific Islands governments considering deep sea mining need proper legislation and policy to deal with this emerging industry.

Part of the longer term challenge here is the need to skill up Pacific Islanders so national governments have more specialists like geologists and marine scientists to deal with the industry as it develops. Representatives from PNA and SPC agree that the key is both effective national regulation and more collaboration between Pacific Islands countries so that they negotiate for fair and environmentally responsible access to their deep sea minerals.

For Brownjohn, one of the game changers that put Pacific Islanders in charge of setting the rules for fisheries was having minimum terms and conditions for fishing licences, so he encourages governments to do the same with deep sea mining.

Akuila Tawake, Manager of the SPC-EU Deep Sea Minerals Project, which provides technical support and advice to improve technical capacity, community involvement and government management of deep sea mineral resources, says there is a need for Pacific Islands countries to work together to avoid irresponsible mining. “We are encouraging Pacific Islands countries to move away from what we call a ‘race to the bottom’ scenario, where countries have to work on their own and compete against each other.

I think that’s a bad scenario for the whole region. “We want them to work together, against a background of limited resources and limited knowledge that they have, so we can pool those resources together and strengthen our policy and our legislation and our capacity to be able to fully and meaningfully engage in this new industry.”

Just like fishing, the potential economic growth from deep sea mining offers benefits but stakeholders still need much more discussion, such as those being facilitated by the Deep Sea Minerals Project, to prepare for this new extractive industry while protecting fish stocks. Only through proper management, can we really can have our healthy fish stocks and deep sea mining too.

Source: Island Business Magazine - November 2013 - http://www.islandsbusiness.com/2013/11/mining/deep-sea-mining-or-fisheries/

Last Updated on Monday, 18 November 2013 13:02  


The European Union, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and the Government of Kiribati yesterday formalised a 3.3 Million Euro (4.75 Million AUD) partnership that is expected to increase access to safe water and sanitation in 35 villages in Kiribati's Gilbert Islands.

Funded by the European Union and to be implemented by SPC, the Water and Sanitation in Kiribati Outer Islands project will focus on improving water and sanitation infrastructure on the 16 islands of Kiribati's Gilbert group. It will also improve management of water and sanitation at the community level.

On signing the agreement, the EU’s Ambassador to the Pacific, Mr Andrew Jacobs highlighted the importance of effective partnerships to support local communities when pursuing development goals.

‘The European Union, SPC and Kiribati have forged a fruitful partnership over the years. This project is yet another example thereof. This project also reflects the EU's continued commitment to support the government of Kiribati and its people in their efforts to attain the Millennium Development Goals [MDGs], which are due for assessment in 2015,’ he said.