A New Threat Looms for the Ocean

Mission: Protect the Deep!

The ocean gives us life! It regulates our climate, provides us with food, jobs, supports our well-being, and provides the very oxygen we breathe. Without a healthy ocean, life as we know it would simply not exist. With the ocean covering 70% of our planet, it is befitting to name our planet Ocean instead of Earth.

Unfortunately the ocean is in serious trouble, facing an onslaught of multiple threats, including overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and climate change.

Ninety percent of all fish stocks are fully fished or overfished. In too many cases, industrial fishing is destroying ocean habitats and taking out more fish than the seas can replenish. Illegal fishing compounds this threat, with one in five fish caught illegally, or without any regulation. A staggering 8 million tons of plastic pollution enters our ocean each year, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. Plastics are now found in the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Climate change is causing our ocean to warm, acidify, and reducing the levels of oxygen it contains. This is impacting the biodiversity it supports, for example causing coral bleaching, and affecting animals such as shellfish that are unable to grow properly in increasingly acidic waters. It is crucial that we restore the ocean’s health and safeguard the essential life support functions it provides to all of us. This includes buffering us from the worst impacts of climate change, absorbing much of the heat generated by greenhouse gas emissions and soaking up the carbon we release. 

The ocean-loving community, which probably includes you, is doing all it can to protect the ocean’s health, by ditching single-use plastics, avoiding or only eating sustainably caught seafood, and by taking steps to minimise carbon footprints. However, a new threat to the ocean looms: deep-sea mining.

Deep-sea mining,  involves strip mining the ocean floor for coal-sized nodules that are made up of heavy metals such as cobalt, nickel, manganese and copper for use in battery technology, including electric vehicles. However, we don’t need to mine the deep ocean for metals. In fact, the race to zero carbon is accelerating innovation. Car companies like Tesla have already demonstrated success without using cobalt or nickel in their batteries and there are others leading the charge on developing alternative technologies, such as SAIC Motors and IBM Research. Deep-sea mining companies have themselves acknowledged that there are enough metal-bearing deposits on land to meet the needs of the clean energy transition. Thinking ahead means learning from our mistakes. If we allow deep sea mining to happen, it will be very difficult to stop, or even regulate.

The deep sea makes up most of the world’s ocean. Science is only just beginning to discover the marvels and diversity of life in the deep. The living beings that reside there are the stuff of fantasy. Sharks can live for hundreds of years and octopuses are so translucent, they could be lifted straight out of a sci-fi movie. The mystery and innate value of this unexplored realm is reason enough to protect the deep, but there are many reasons why protecting the farthest depths of the ocean is so crucial. Undiscovered life forms mean an untapped reservoir of new genetic material with immense value for medical innovation- for example the COVID-19 test was derived from a microbe found in a deep-sea hydrothermal vent. Importantly, we are only just beginning to understand the role the deep ocean plays in planetary systems, including in regulating the climate through carbon capture and storage.

This dumbo octopus was our second cephalopod of the day and a dive highlight!
This fish – potentially a Malacosarcus sp. – is a bit of a mystery for our science team as these prickelfish are usually found at shallower depths.

The polymetallic nodules sought by the emerging mining industry take millions of years to form and serve as essential habitat for countless animals. For example the recently discovered Casper octopus lays its eggs on the nodules. The damage caused by the gargantuan mining machines seeking these nodules would be irreversible on human timescales. As well as the immediate physical damage deep-sea mining operations would cause, there are the wider impacts to the ocean. Underwater dust storms or ‘sediment plumes’ would be created by mining machinery, causing further damage to ecosystems across thousands of square kilometers. These plumes would potentially negatively affect the animals that filter feed the nutrients from the water column far beyond the mining sites. Wastewater would also be pumped back into the ocean and is likely to be toxic. All of this would impact life in the deep as well as migratory species such as whales, dolphins, and sea turtles. To put it into perspective, over a 15-year period, a single mining license could affect an area of ocean the size of Costa Rica, and there are currently 31 licenses being sought! Beyond severely impacting the health of the deep ocean, all of this will likely have knock on effects for coastal communities that depend on the ocean for their livelihoods.

Voices around the world are increasingly speaking out against deep-sea mining, from the scientific community, to parliamentarians, to the fishing sector, as well as youth groups, indigenous communities, coastal communities and recreational ocean users such as surfers and divers. There is no appetite to embark on yet another destructive industry. Banks and financial institutions are also increasingly steering clear of this disastrous proposition. 

Deep-sea mining is a highly destructive extractive industry that does not fit into the collective vision for a clean and sustainable circular economy – but there is good news. 

Unlike the climate crisis, which we have allowed to unfold over the last century, this is a crisis we can stop before it starts. Whilst experimental and exploratory deep-sea mining activities are already underway, mining at a commercial scale has yet to be approved by the international community. With the global pandemic raging and the climate crisis unfolding, it is easy for governments to latch on to quick fixes and lose sight of what really needs to happen to secure our existence and collective prosperity. Whilst the companies that want to profit from mining are lobbying governments for approval, we can tell our elected officials to stop this new disaster from starting! Say ‘no’ to deep-sea mining today and call on your country’s leader to defend the ocean from a destructive, extractive industry that belongs in the past.

Stay tuned for news about our campaign to put a freeze on deep-sea mining! Click here to take action today!

About the author

Farah Obaidullah is an Ocean Advocate, Founder of Women4Oceans and a Global Campaigner with the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. She holds both a Master of Science and Bachelor of Science from Imperial College in London. With almost 20 years experience in ocean advocacy, Farah has traveled the world, observing the beauty of the ocean and witnessing some of the most egregious practices happening at sea. Among her achievements, Farah has executed campaigns to end destructive fishing, worked with affected communities, lobbied for ocean protection and been deeply involved in exposing fish crimes, including slavery and labour abuse at sea. Farah’s current focus is on protecting the deep ocean from seabed mining. Farah is biracial, bicultural, and considers herself a citizen of the world. She lives by the sea in the Netherlands. Farah strongly believes that by embracing our human diversity we can turn the tide for our ocean planet.