The international scientific community has been expressing a unified concern regarding plans for a budding deep-sea mining industry in the coming years. Countries like Chile, Palau, Fiji, Samoa, and Micronesia have since issued moratoriums, imploring the need to protect the ocean floor. Many have expressed concerns about what they believe is a conflict of interest with the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the institution appointed to protect the ocean floor also regulates licenses for mining.
The opposition to deep-sea mining in Jamaica has evolved over the last few months as the ISA, which is headquartered in Jamaica, wrapped up its negotiations over the regulation of a possible deep-sea mining industry scheduled for a 2023 launch.
Key to understanding the fallouts from such an industry in already vulnerable regions like the Pacific and Caribbean is the current state of marine ecosystems. Jamaica in particular has had a declining fish stock since the 1970s due to increased storm activity, overfishing and natural diseases. In developing island nations like Jamaica, the fisheries sector is a major source of relief for coastal communities. The sector provides employment, trade and food security. The Caribbean Natural Resources Institute’s(CANARI) 2020 report found that the fisheries sector provides livelihoods for over 187,000 fisherfolk across CARICOM including the most disadvantaged, least educated, rural citizens, women and the poor.
Currently, fisherfolk in these regions continue to struggle against the tide of global warming and other climate change effects on marine life. Many are now forced to consider alternatives or more sustainable paths to income and food. With the balance of marine and terrestrial life in such a precarious state, it’s not hard to imagine the kind of damage mining could have on the ocean.
Deep-sea mining involves the use of high-tech mining equipment to excavate the ocean floor for precious metals. The central conflict associated with the deep-sea mining industry is the rush to entry, despite the lack of sufficient scientific evidence regarding exactly how it will affect the environment. Although the seabed mining is set to take place on the high seas far from the coastlines, oceans are connected through currents and underwater channels that could easily distribute ill health across all waters on the planet. Further complicating this underwater gold rush and the lack of science surrounding it, is the assertion that the ocean floor contains more deposits of precious metals like copper, lithium and cobalt that are essential for a clean energy transition than there are on land. Concerted efforts to reduce terrestrial mining due to its effects on climate have reduced the avenues for metals companies to supply their demand. Being granted less licenses and permits to mine has inadvertently influenced the rush to mine deep seas.
Following a seven-year wait, the Pacific island nation of Nauru made known to the UN its plans to begin mining underwater. This, in turn, birthed the “two-year rule” in which the ISA was given the ultimatum of making a decision regarding deep-sea mining before Nauru officially commenced its operations. Besides the more obvious violation of human right to a healthy environment, deep sea mining could further damage climate vulnerable waters and eventually coastlines in regions like our own. Based on things like increase in sea surface temperature drastically changing climate norms, we can also theorize that deep sea mining will have a similar net amplification of climate change impacts due to serious disruption of the marine ecosystem. This, makes it an issue of climate justice.
Unfortunately, an awareness of these unfoldings has escaped the gaze of popular culture. “Deep-sea mining isn’t as sexy as plastics, and oil spills for example. I heard about deep-sea mining because our organization, who has known about it for some time, has been researching and pushing a campaign for a moratorium. It’s not a topic that is very widely known, especially in the Caribbean.” says Sweelan Renaud, communications and social media manager for the Sustainable Ocean Alliance(SOA Caribbean).
Renaud shared that “an example of this is where we recently wrapped up our campaign Caribbean Youth Against Deep Sea Mining. We had an art exhibition because we really wanted to use art to bridge the gap between science. I think people connect a lot with creativity and art, so we even had an animation video and many people came out of watching it saying they never knew it was this serious. Because you’re not in the [environmental] space, it might seem like nothing is happening, but we can’t say that.”
Meanwhile, the verdict on environmental impact is out due to lack of evidence, an already delicate and disturbed marine system can help to tell the story of what further disruption could look like. Some of Jamaica’s most famous beaches are receding due to factors like a 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) rise in sea level, overfishing of stocks by over subsidized foreign fleets, destruction of coral reefs and mangroves due to unsustainable development, agricultural runoff, and sea surface temperature rise. To put it more simply, systems like mangroves and coral reefs which provide food and home for fisheries are on a steep decline, this in turn contributes to declining fish stock. This cycle is then reinforced because fish not only feed in these coastal systems, species like the Scaridae(Parrot Fish) are reef cleaners and play large roles in the health of the ocean.
Disturbing systems like this which naturally require a delicate balance, but are also vulnerable, could disrupt all life in the ocean. After all, the world’s oceans feed into and supply nutrients to each other through deep underwater currents and channels. Youth organizations like the Jamaica Climate Change Youth Council and older ones like Jamaica Environment Trust have come forward in opposition.
Unfortunately, this “two-year rule” and three-week negotiation that took place in Kingston Jamaica, ended last August without a decision.
Despite the growing calls for moratoriums and general disagreement for deep-sea mining, the stipulated period for deliberations have ended. However, a paper studying what this could mean, titled The Invocation of the ‘Two-Year Rule’ at the International Seabed Authority: Legal Consequences and Implications by Pradeep A. Singh indicates it might not be the end of the beginning. In it, the research examines the idea that although the two-year wait ending might grant the metals company in Nauru exploratory rights; if the negotiations at the ISA later reveal a united voice on disagreement, then mining will have to be discontinued. In the meantime, the race to raise awareness, which has in some cases caused a turn in favor during negotiations, continues.
This story was originally published by Backayard Magazine, with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.