News From a Changing Planet: The Ocean is Not a Mine

Posted inCreative Voices

On Wednesday, a poem by Pablo Neruda (whose birthday it was) arrived in my inbox, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation, “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market.” It begins:

among the market vegetables,
this torpedo
from the ocean   
a missile   
that swam,
lying in front of me

I had never read this poem before, but I was struck that it had arrived in my inbox on Wednesday, given that the future of tunas (and all kinds of other ocean life) are currently being decided (albeit indirectly) at the annual meeting of the International Seabed Authority, the UN agency that regulates deep-sea mining, in Kingston, Jamaica, AND a compelling case had just been made in a study published on July 11th (co-authored by friends of NFACP, Dr. Diva Amon and Dr. Douglas McCauley) that deep-sea mining would put the future of tuna and the people and fisheries who depend on them in even greater danger.

At this meeting, the ISA is supposed to be developing the mining code, a set of regulations that will govern commercial seabed mining around the world. But if mining does begin in international waters, it will happen first in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a 1.7 million-square-mile expanse of international waters in the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Hawai’i.

In the CCZ, the ocean floor — about 4-5km below the surface there —is speckled with polymetallic nodules — rocklike formations ranging in size from cherry to grapefruit — that contain some of the metals that are currently used for lithium ion batteries, particularly nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese. The nascent deep sea mining industry, namely The Metals Company (TMC), has pitched mining the CCZ as essential to the clean energy transition, and a less harmful alternative to land-based mining, which is currently how we are getting the metals and the other puzzle pieces we need for electrification.

Because of some complicated and wonky machinations by members of the ISA, which I wrote about two years ago and you can read about here, the ISA may be forced to consider applications to begin commercial mining of the seabed in the CCZ, despite the fact that there are currently no regulations for doing so, and despite the fact that the environmental impacts to the ocean from seabed mining remain largely unknown.

That’s not to say scientists haven’t been working to try to figure out what the impacts would be. Almost every recent paper about the possible impacts of deep sea mining suggests that they would be major, or else, a lot more than whatever mining companies say.

And scientists are largely not on board. Nearly 800 scientists and marine policy experts have signed a statement of opposition to mining. The governments of several countries that are parties to UNCLOS and the ISA (the U.S. is not one of them…) also support a moratorium: Sweden, Ireland, Germany, France, Spain, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, Palau, Fiji and the Federated States of Micronesia. Emmanuel Macron supports a total ban.

This is a Relicanthus sp., an animal identified in a new order of Cnidaria in the CCZ, taken 4.1km below the surface of the ocean. Credit NOAA

Gerard Barron, the CEO of TMC, told me in an interview that, in parts of the ocean as deep as the CCZ, “There is just not that much life.” According to scientists who know a lot more than him about the deep ocean, that’s not true: a recent study told of more than 5,000 species recently discovered there, about 90 percent of which were unknown to scientists.

Which brings me back to the tuna. In their study, Dr. Amon, Dr. McCauley and their co-authors looked into the possible impacts of deep sea mining on three species of tuna in the fisheries management areas which also includes the CCZ — bigeye, yellowfin and skipjack. The fisheries of these three species in this part of the ocean alone are worth about $5.5 billion. The effects of climate change on the ocean — changing chemistry and temperatures — will likely bring more of this highly migratory tuna species into the CCZ at the very moment that industrial mining (if it is permitted) kicks into high gear.

This would be possibly catastrophic for these tuna, as well as the fisheries and people who depend on them. (Although many of us, who don’t depend on tuna for key nutrition and subsistence should think carefully about eating them. As deep (ocean) thinker (and my brother) Jack Schlossberg provocatively asks re: tuna, “You wouldn’t eat a hawk, so why would you eat a tuna?”).

The effects of deep sea mining are numerous: sediment plumes from (essentially) underwater bulldozers trawling the ground for nodules, smothering deep ocean life and interfering with deep ocean chemistry; more of this deep sea sediment being dumped back into the ocean at shallower depths after the nodules are recovered, possibly interfering with photosynthesis and diurnal migration of much ocean life (the largest migration on earth) and possibly including toxic materials which could then enter the food chain (via the tuna or other fish); extremely loud noise, from nodule collector, from sucking the nodules up to the surface, via a metal pipe over several miles, from more shipping and exploratory activity in this remote area.

The sediment plume question is serious, especially when it comes to carbon sequestration. The ocean already takes up about 1/3 of the carbon we pump into the atmosphere every year, and some scientists also suspect that disturbing the sediment could stir up carbon that has been sequestered for a long time, practically permanently, which has been shown to be an effect of other forms of oceanic extraction. For example, a 2021 study showed that trawling the seafloor for fish could release as much carbon dioxide per year as the entire aviation industry. There hasn’t been enough research into this question to know for sure, but McCauley told me that dredging up all of this sediment could have “all sorts of uncertain impacts on climate.” There’s “all of this carbon that’s safely stored where we want it to be, on the seafloor,” he said. “What happens when you pull that back up?”

(Meanwhile, the ISA’s draft regulations only mentioned climate change a few times, in a cursory fashion.)

I know that there are tradeoffs — land based mining has extremely high costs to people, planet, animals, and I don’t want Indonesia to be strip-mined and its rainforests destroyed and I don’t want children to work and die in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and I don’t want mining companies to use up all of the water in communities around the Atacama desert for lithium and I don’t want rivers to run with toxic water in Peru for any reason— and that the metals have to come from somewhere if we do, in fact, want to preserve the future of a habitable planet and also keep making phones and computers. Barron told me that if deep sea mining were found to be more environmentally harmful than land-based mining, he wouldn’t do it. But that’s not a very high bar.

Plus, look at the types of machines they are building. These will not just be picking up nodules from the ocean floor — they will be tearing up the ocean floor, a very delicate ecosystem that has evolved under precise conditions over hundreds of millions of years where life moves incredibly slowly. Unlike terrestrial ecosystems, parts of the deep ocean, like the floor of the CCZ, will take millions of years to recover from something like seabed mining, if they ever really recover. (This landmark study from 2020 can help explain why that’s the case.)

Particularly telling, I thought, was when I asked Gerard Barron why, if he was so keen to make the clean energy transition happen, he didn’t invest in research and development into new kinds of batteries that didn’t require metals or mining at all? Or why didn’t he turn his attention to recycling the batteries that already exist, or mine the landfills where we have already dumped plenty of this precious material?

In an interview, Barron said, “I just couldn’t get my mind around that as a possibility.”

But why not?

If we could go back in time, wouldn’t we want to try to do land-based mining better instead? And now that we have that chance, wouldn’t we want to take what we’ve learned from the horrors of mining on land and be cautious when it comes to the future of the ocean? Why is the answer to rush to mine the ocean with possibly catastrophic impacts that we don’t yet know or understand just because it might be technically allowed under the aegis of an obscure international agency? Maybe we will decide that the tradeoffs are worth it, but we won’t be able to make that decision in an informed way if we don’t take the time to fully understand the consequences of doing something like mining the bottom of the ocean.

Life began in the ocean, in deep parts like the CCZ or hydrothermal vents where the molten hot core of the earth is that much closer. To so fundamentally mess with the ocean (beyond the many ways in which we’ve already fundamentally messed with it) at this particular moment — when oceans around the world are defying the very existence of temperature records, hitting around 90ºF around Florida, for example and heatwaves bake the Southwest and Vermont becomes an underwater kingdom and that’s only in the US — seems like one of the most short-sighted and reckless things we could do.

Meanwhile, it seems like parts of the media continue to buy Barron’s narrative, not questioning whether deep sea mining is worth the possible impacts to the future of life on earth. The Economist had two articles last week saying that the seabed should be mined. Semafor (h/t Jacob Koch for sending!) gave the environmental and climate impacts a brief glance before moving back to merely watching this “race” to see who wins the “gold rush,” a term that itself obscures the historical tragedies that gold rushes, including the California gold rush, brought about.

It’s also not as if the impacts of this will be limited to tuna or whales or even deep ocean sponges and microbes (something I’ve written about before), although their preservation should give us pause too. This matters FOR PEOPLE. The oceans govern the habitability of our planet. They have made and continue to make life possible here. They absorb heat — about 90 percent of the excess heat created by greenhouse gas emissions — and carbon emissions (as previously mentioned). They give us more than half of the oxygen we breathe. They are providing cover for so many of our collective sins. It seems like the least we could do would be to find out what might happen if we rush to destroy them.

Photo by HONG FENG on Unsplash

If you’ve read this screed all the way to the end, thank you. Your reward is a different poem about fish — about their resilience, their dignity, the victory of their survival.

THE FISH by Elizabeth Bishop 

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight.
He hadn't fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
—It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip—
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

This was originally posted on Tatiana’s Substack News from a Changing Planet, a free twice-monthly newsletter about what on Earth is happening, with articles and essays about climate change and the environment.

Header photo by Mishal Ibrahim on Unsplash.