COVID-19 made deep-sea mining more tempting for some Pacific islands – this could be a problem

This article originally appeared in The Conversation. Featured image: Sea turtle

Editor’s note: The statement in the article’s headline –that the temptation of allowing deep sea mining “could be a problem”– seems ironic. There is no doubt that deep sea mining is extremely dangerous and destructive to oceanic ecosystems which are already serverly stressed  by overfishing and global warming. Apart from that, we all know that most of the profit will go to multinational cooperations, not to the island’s inhabitants.

Sue Farran, Newcastle University

While most Pacific islands have escaped the worst of COVID-19, a cornerstone of their economies, tourism, has taken a big hit. By June 2020, visitor arrivals in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu had completely ceased, as borders were closed and even internal travel restricted. In Fiji, where tourism generated about 40% of GDP before the pandemic, the economy contracted by 19% in 2020.

One economic alternative lies just offshore. The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) is a deep-sea trench spanning 4.5 million square kilometres in the central Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico. On its seabed are potato-sized rocks called polymetallic nodules which contain nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese. These formed over centuries through the accumulation of iron and manganese around debris such as shells or sharks’ teeth.

There are estimated to be around 21 billion tonnes of manganese nodules in this trench alone, and demand for these metals is likely to skyrocket as the world ramps up the development of batteries for electric vehicles and renewable power grids.

While much of the CCZ lies beneath the high seas where no single state has control, it’s adjacent to the exclusive economic zones of several Pacific island states, including the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and Tonga. Lacking the means to search for the metals themselves, these states have sponsored mining companies to take out licences with the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which is responsible for sustainably managing the seabed in international waters. This would allow these companies to explore the seabed and determine how viable mining is likely to be, and its potential environmental impact.

To date, ISA has approved 19 exploration contracts, 17 of which are in the CCZ. A Canadian company, The Metals Company (formerly DeepGreen Metals) has contracts with Tonga, Nauru and Kiribati.

With so little known about the biodiversity of this largely unexplored part of the ocean, it’s difficult to accurately predict how deep-sea mining will affect species here. Environmental organisations and scientists have argued for a moratorium on mining until more extensive research can be done.


Some Pacific islanders, including The Alliance of Solwara Warriors, representing indigenous communities in the Bismark and Solomon Seas of Papua New Guinea, have protested the lack of information given to local communities about the potential impact of mining. In April 2021, Pacific civil society groups wrote to the British government seeking support for a moratorium. Meanwhile, a former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, has described deep-sea mining as “inevitable” and urged businesses to figure out how to do it safely.


But time is running out. Seven exploratory licences are due to expire in 2021, making it imperative that either a moratorium is adopted internationally, or the ISA adopts a legal framework for determining the conditions under which extractive mining can take place.

From exploration to extraction

Work towards this framework has been ongoing since 2014. Despite this, the 168 nations of the ISA assembly have yet to agree a code for regulating extractive mining contracts. The ISA’s ambition to reach an agreement in 2020 was derailed by the pandemic, and it’s unclear whether meetings will go ahead in 2021. It’s likely that exploratory contracts will expire in the meantime, increasing pressure on the ISA from mining companies and those states sponsoring them to grant exploitation licences. Exploratory licences are regulated by the ISA. Without an agreed code, extractive ones are not.

Even if a consensus were reached, enforcing environmental safeguards would be difficult. Pinpointing responsibility for the source of any pollution or environmental damage is tricky when mining takes place in such deep water. There are also few, if any, physical boundaries between one mining area and another. The effects of mining on different ecosystems and habitats might take time to manifest.

International consensus on a moratorium is unlikely too. Mining companies have ploughed a lot of money into developing technology for operating at these depths. They will want to see a return on that, and so will their investors. States which have sponsored mining contracts – including some Pacific islands – will want to reap the royalties they have been promised.

Pacific island states find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. They are among the countries most vulnerable to climate change and so support strong action. But unless alternatives are found, the developed world’s green transition will probably accelerate demand for metals resting peacefully in the deepest parts of the ocean surrounding these islands. It will be the people here who will bear the costs of deep-sea mining undertaken without sufficient caution, not the drivers of electric cars in the global north.The Conversation

Sue Farran, Reader of Law, Newcastle University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2 thoughts on “COVID-19 made deep-sea mining more tempting for some Pacific islands – this could be a problem”

  1. This rather naive article doesn’t even touch on how deep sea mining would be done, and where even the “greenest” of several possible technologies is horrifically brown.

    In simplest terms, a robotic plough would scoop up the sea floor in the most fertile areas, bring the contents to the surface, remove the economically useful mineral nodules, and dump the rest back into the sea, more or less where it came from.

    If that sounds relatively non-invasive, think again. What they’re proposing is the marine equivalent of scraping all living things and sopsoil off of large swaths of land, removing the lumps of useful minerals, and dumping all remaining life and topsoil back where it was — but from several thousand feet up.

    Along with killing almost every living thing that was scooped up, the process would also pollute the area twice: in the first instance, by ripping deep sea plants and animals from the sea floor, and churning up the equivalent of a huge dust cloud; in the second, by dumping over 90% of what was dredged up back into the sea — albeit from several hundred or thousand feet above where it formerly lived.

    Think of back-to-back tornadoes hitting a freshly ploughed meadow, and you get the idea — but with no film crews or reporters there to chronicle the death and destruction. Now try to imagine how long this could continue in the murky depths, before science or industry discovered the extent of the damage.

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