The problem is that much remains unknown not just about what exists on the ocean floor, but also how ocean systems operate to keep the Earth habitable. The ocean floor was once thought to be a marine desert, but oceanographers say the sediment is rich in marine life, with thousands of species of invertebrates occupying a single site.
“It’s tampering with ecosystems we hardly understand that are really at the frontier of our knowledge base,” Conservation International vice president Greg Stone said. “We are starting mining extracting operations in a place where we don’t fully understand how it works yet. So that is our concern, disturbing the deep sea habitat.”
Most of the models rely on being able to produce 1 million tonnes of ore a year. Stone said the seabed authority was putting systems in place to protect the ocean floor, but other scientists say mining still poses enormous risks to the sediment and the creatures that live there.
“It is going to damage vast areas of the sea floor,” said Craig Smith, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii who served as an adviser to the International Seabed Authority. “I just don’t see any way [in] mining one of these claims that whole areas won’t be heavily damaged.”
Earle expressed fears about how mining companies will deal with waste in the high seas saying: “Mining is possible, but the 20,000ft question is: What do you do with the tailings? All of the proposals involved dumping the tailings at sea with profound impacts on the water column and the sea floor below.”
“The Seabed Authority initially proposed to set aside 1.6 million square kilometers of the ocean floor as protected areas, or about 20 percent of its territory. Yet those reserves are under review. As economic pressures rise, there are fears that commercial operations would begin to erode those protected areas,” Earle added.
“I think it is certain that within a year or two, there will be more claims covering these areas and there won’t be enough room left to develop these scientifically defensible protected areas,” Smith said.
Others have argued that with all the unknowns there should be no mining at all and that the high seas should remain out of bounds for mineral extraction and shipping.
Former Costa Rican president Jose Maria Figueres, who co-chairs the Global Ocean Commission — an independent entity charged with developing ideas for ocean reform — along with former British secretary of foreign affairs David Miliband suggested leaving all of the high seas as a no-go area for commercial exploitation (apart from shipping).
“Do we know enough about the seabed to go ahead and mine it?” Figueres asked. “Do we understand enough about the interconnection between the seabed, the column of water, the 50 percent of the oxygen that the ocean produces for the world, the 25 percent of the carbon that it fixes in order to go in and disrupt the seabed in way that we would if we went in and started mining? I don’t think so, not until we have scientific backing to determine whether this is something good or bad for the planet.”