On 14 July, JPI Oceans and its MiningImpact project organised a side-event at the 22nd Session of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to present the latest research results on the environmental impacts of deep-sea mining and discuss with the delegates how the marine environment could be most effectively protected.
The briefing provided input to the ongoing ISA deliberations regarding the exploitation code and aimed to ensure that the deep-sea governance regime is based on the best available scientific knowledge. At the side-event, attended by approximately 90 delegates, contractors and observers to the ISA, project coordinator Dr Matthias Haeckel (GEOMAR), and work package leaders Dr Daniel Jones (NOC Southampton), Prof. Ann Vanreusel (Ghent University) and Prof. Antje Boetius (Alfred-Wegener-Institute) presented first results and made recommendations to the ISA. In particular, they outlined that their recent cruises to the Clarion Clipperton Zone and DISCOL Area had revealed that nodule ecosystems consist of a highly diverse sessile and mobile fauna, whose communities vary considerably across areas with different nodule coverage, as well as more broadly with habitat (e.g. seamounts and nodule habitats). Polymetallic nodules are important to preserve abyssal biodiversity in the region. Furthermore, they confirmed that disturbances of nodule ecosystems from mining operations last for many decades and impact all ecosystem compartments and functions. For instance, they persistently reduce biogeochemical remineralization processes and production potentials of seafloor communities.
In light of these findings, the scientists recommended that conservation areas needed to match habitat characteristics of mined areas (e.g. productivity, nodule coverage) to preserve abyssal biodiversity in the CCZ and assessed that the currently assigned Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEIs) in the CCZ alone may not provide all the anticipated services. Thus, they suggested, additional Marine Protected Areas would be necessary. The team also highlighted that appropriate monitoring technologies to assess mining impacts were available; however, further knowledge exchange between industry and science as well as standardisation was necessary to ensure the best approaches are ready for industry use. Moreover, they argued that the current ISA recommendations on methods, parameters for baseline studies, and monitoring need to be revised to reflect the current state-of-the-art science.
These recommendations sparked lively debate between the country delegates, contractors and observers present in the audience. In a discussion, moderated by Dr David Billett (Legal and Technical Commission, ISA), the audience was particularly interested in impact of mining activities on the fauna and their wider relevance in the ecosystem and the services it provides. The usefulness of the APEIs was also debated as well as the necessity of having additional protected areas. Finally, the audience enquired about the differences in impacts from different mining technologies.
The side-event was held in the context of the 22nd annual session of the International Seabed Authority convened in Kingston, Jamaica from 11 to 22 July 2016. Among the priority issues debated by the Authority were the extension of the first set of exploration contracts, new applications for approval of plans of work for exploration and the development of draft regulations for exploitation of polymetallic nodules in the deep seabed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (the Area). Another important agenda item were legal questions concerning potential conflicts between the right of all States to carry out marine scientific research in the Area and the rights of contractors – an item that will likely stay on the Authority’s agenda for some time, as States argued a careful balance needed to be struck between these potentially competing rights.
The presented results stem from the MiningImpact project involving 25 institutes, which 11 European countries are funding under the framework of JPI Oceans in order to improve the necessary knowledge basis for deep-sea governance. At its core have been four scientific research expeditions on the newest deep-sea research vessel Sonne in 2015 to the CCZ as well as to the Peru Basin where the seafloor disturbance and recolonization experiment (DISCOL) was carried out in 1989.