There is time to save the seas from our thoughtless extractivism

Lara Watson argues we should stop deep-sea mining before it wreaks havoc on marine environments.

Your smartphone, as well as renewable energy from wind turbines and solar panels, relies on minerals like cobalt, nickel, and lithium. As the world gobbles up these resources ever faster, mining companies are looking to the deep sea for a quick solution to depleting terrestrial resources.

In September 2021, the European Commission announced plans to step up deep-sea mining extraction, despite an overwhelming vote by governments in favour of a moratorium on the operations. This destructive operation is unnecessary and must be stopped before it spells yet another environmental disaster.

There could be completely unprecedented damage to deep-sea ecosystems

Sediment plumes are one the biggest risks to marine life: these plumes would be created by the dredging of the sea floor in mining, and their resettling can cause dramatic changes in local ecosystems. “The severity and spatial scales of plumes remains a controversial issue, with environmentalists fearing plumes could travel hundreds of kilometres and mining companies anticipating the impact to extend no further than 10 km from the mining site,” states a document written by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

As terrestrial resources are depleted, mining companies now look towards the oceans.

No extensive studies on the potential ecological damage have been conducted yet. That means that there could be completely unprecedented damage to deep-sea ecosystems, potentially ridding the planet of rare species. One such species – the scaly foot snail, found on vent sites along the Indian Ocean ridges – was recently classified as endangered because of the threat of seabed mining in the area.

As someone hoping to go into a career in marine biology, I cannot face the idea of species being lost before I get a chance to study them or even know of their existence, but I have full faith that there is still time to save them. 

So, what can be done to prevent deep-sea mining from becoming a greater reality?

One thing is to invest in battery innovation. “Battery technology has advanced rapidly. Investment in innovation means that the next generation of longer-lived batteries that reuse metals – or do not use deep-sea minerals at all – are already entering the market,” writes a member of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. With newer, less environmentally invasive technologies already on the market, why do we need to resort to older, more environmentally destructive methods?

The high costs of deep sea mining should also be diverted towards recycling. Reclaiming one tonne of lithium from recycled lithium sources costs approximately $28,000. According to estimates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, just setting up a deep-sea mine can cost over $1bn. Think about how much recycled lithium could be recovered with that!

We also need more wide-scale electronic recycling programs in communities. Being able to retrieve these minerals before they go to waste sites or landfills will reduce the need to mine. With websites such as you can find your local drop-off point. The facilities are already here and accessible – all it needs is a little promotion. 

Repurposing and reusing your old electronics is without a doubt the easiest way to make a personal difference. Every house has that drawer filled with old phones, expired currency, and old takeaway menus. If everyone contributed to the recycling system by sending in their old electronic waste, there would be greater amounts in circulation to recycle. The European Union has created regulations to reduce the amounts of minerals in new batteries from 2030.

Lawmakers need to do their part to stop deep-sea mining from being undertaken on large, ecologically destructive scales. A moratorium on deep-sea mining needs to be in place, at least until there are clearer environmental impacts. The European Commission plans announced in September are a roadblock to this. With most governments overwhelmingly in favour of delaying or stopping deep-sea mining on all scales, the enthusiasm is clearly present. The biggest challenge will be convincing world leaders of the financial positives to investing in, instead  of ruining, undiscovered and unique ecosystems. 

Lara Watson (she/her) is a fourth-year history student. @lara_bethan

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