Ecological aspects of deep-sea mining

The JPI Oceans Pilot Action "Ecological Aspects of Deep-Sea Mining" assesses the ecological impacts which could arise from commercial mining activities in the deep-sea.

Background

Global interest amongst policy makers, mining companies and researchers in the exploration and exploitation of deep-sea minerals is on the rise. The lack or limited availability of certain elements and minerals from terrestrial ore deposits have made raw materials from the marine environment a target for future mining operations. Minerals from polymetallic nodules, crusts and submarine-exhalative sulphides are seen as essential for the electronics industry, future transport technologies and renewable energies. However, commercial deep-sea mining will have a major impact on fragile deep-sea ecosystems. The issue was recently highlighted at the 2015 G7 Leaders summit.

Collecting minerals will destroy the top layer of the seabed, causing disturbance and disruption to the flora and fauna in the mining tracks. In addition, the propulsion system of the collector will stir up sediments into the water column, potentially burying organisms in an area around the mining track. To minimise human impact on the benthic ecosystems, long term studies, prior to mining activities, of environmental consequences are essential.

Aims

The principal aim of the action, as decided by JPI Oceans’ Member Country representatives together with nationally nominated scientific experts, is to study of the long-term ecological effects of deep-sea mining.

To realise this aim, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) offered 90 days of on-site research on the recently inaugurated RV Sonne (plus an additional 18 days for vessel transit) for a cruise in the Pacific in early 2015. A group of international scientists under the lead of Matthias Haeckel (GEOMAR) and Pedro Martinez (German Centre for Marine Biodiversity Research / Senckenberg institute) subsequently developed a common scientific proposal for this cruise. Following a positive evaluation of the cruise proposal by both the JPI Oceans Strategic Advisory Board and international reviewers, member countries have endorsed the cruise proposal.

A three-legged cruise visited the DISCOL (DISturbance and re-COLonization experiment) area off the coast of Peru. Here sea-floor disturbance experiment were carried out in the 1980s to simulate mining impact. The cruise also visited the various claims of European countries in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone in the Pacific Ocean.

On this cruise as well as in subsequent shore-based analyses, researchers from eleven countries (BE, DE, FR, IT, NL, NO, PL, PT, RO, SE, UK) will:

  • assess the scale of recovery, the ecosystem status, and the biogeochemical situation of the DISCOL site by comparing disturbed with adjacent undisturbed sites.
  • test a range of modern rapid assessment methods and monitoring techniques for defining the ecosystem status and for improving our understanding of dynamics of abyssal environments before and after anthropogenic disturbances.
  • conduct a comparative ecological genetic baseline study as well as a comparative geochemical and hydrodynamic investigation. This will strengthen baseline studies that must be undertaken by European holders of exploration licences from the International Seabed Authority.
  • predict the ecological, biogeochemical and hydrodynamic consequences of a mining impact as well as an assessment of the footprint and the nature of the temporal evolution towards a (new) equilibrium.
  • communicate the results to stakeholders, policymakers to initiate the revision of ISA regulations, where appropriate, and a discussion on how to minimize the ecological impacts of future deep-sea mining activities.


As such the pilot action will enable scientists and policy makers to better assess the impact of deep sea mining activities. In the long term this will then allow policy makers to define a better legal framework for deep sea mining activities.

Progress

The project started on 1 January 2015 and runs for a period of 36 months. The 90 days of ship time has been divided into a two legged cruise.

1st Cruise Leg

From March to April 2015, the JPI Oceans project embarked on Germany’s newest research vessel, the RV SONNE, to visit the German, Belgian, and French license areas. Additionally it was the first to visit one of the nine protected areas defined by the ISA in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ).

The primary goals of this leg are:

  • to assess the ecosystem status prior to any mining activities,
  • to study the long-range connectivity of benthic fauna across the CCZ,
  • to evaluate if seamounts are suitable refuges and sites of recolonisation for species from mined areas.

More information about this leg on the project website.

2nd Cruise Leg

From July to October 2015, the RV SONNE revisited the DISCOL experimental area in the Peru Basin, where a seafloor area was scientifically disturbed by ploughing in 1989. Studying this unique site will allow to assess the long-term impact of mining activities. The scale of recovery, the ecosystem status, and the biogeochemical situation after 26 years at the DISCOL site will be investigated by comparing disturbed plough tracks with adjacent undisturbed areas.

More information about this leg on the project website.

Following the cruises scientists are evaluating the collected data on-shore in the participating institutes. Preliminary results of the cruise show that the plough marks in the DISCOL area have hardly changed. Very little recolonization, low bioturbation and microbial activity was observed, implying that nodule mining will likely disturb the deepsea ecosystem for many decades. Numerous seamounts were also detected in the deep sea which may make it difficult to mine on large continuous areas. Finally, the cruise has proven that the technology to conduct Environmental Impact Assessments and monitoring is available.

Next steps

Scientific data analyses will be targeted towards formulating recommendations for deep-sea nodule mining. Workshops with policymakers, stakeholders, contractors holding exploration licenses and interested industry planning offshore mining activities will be organised to communicate the project results. Scientific data and results will be stored in public world-wide databases and will also be made available to the Legal and Technical Commission of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to facilitate implementation into regulations. 

More information

Project website

Participating Countries

BE, DE, FR, IT, NL, NO, PL, PT, RO, SE, UK

Contact

Scientific coordinator:

Matthias Haeckel, GEOMAR
E-mail: mhaeckel@geomar.de

Funding coordinator:

Christian Alecke, German Federal Ministry of Research and Education
E-mail: Christian.Alecke@bmbf.bund.de

Norbert Blum, Project Management Juelich
E-mail: n.blum@fz-juelich.de

JPI Oceans secretariat:

John Hanus
E-mail: hanus@deutsche-meeresforschung.de
Tel. +32 (0) 27 33 89 48

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