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Deep Seabed Mining & its Social and Environmental Impacts

Deep Seabed Mining, or DSM as it’s commonly referred to, is becoming more prominent in the environmental and sustainability communities in more ways than one. Firstly, the benefits of DSM have given rise to a potential solution for the increased demands of metals for batteries to power electric vehicles. As more and more manufacturers turn to green solutions for commercial transportation, the demand for metals like manganese, cobalt, and zinc will continue to exponentially increase. Land mining operations have begun to deplete these metals from dry mines and being that DSM focuses primarily around active or dormant sea vents with unbelievable temperatures and pressures, these conditions are prime for forming polymetallic nodules that can be mined and turned into these metals.

While all this does sound promising, it is the unknown that has activists and conservation groups worried. The deep-sea ecosystem is one of the least understood ecosystems in the world, and any adjustments to this ecosystem with errors or mistakes in mining technologies could have drastic impacts. Extreme engineered vehicles will be needed to traverse to the depths of the hydrothermal vents, where sediment pollution gets kicked up and distributed to the sea layers above by the shear forces that the mining operations need to perform. It’s currently in developmental phases and is very likely to be under the close watch of many international conservation groups to ensure the integrity of the deep-sea ecosystem.

One of the more prominent conservation groups is the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN-backed group headquartered in Jamaica that is tasked with regulating and overseeing seabed activity around the globe. The ISA has recently been providing exploration contracts to numerous countries and groups of countries to pursue the mining of these polymetallic nodules, with most mining sites being south and southeast of Hawaii and in the Indian Basin. The ISA is also tasked with ensuring the safety of the seabed region and takes its role in protecting the environment very seriously.

Currently, the ISA is under the watchful eye of organizations such as the Sustainable Ocean Alliance (SOA) for an upcoming legislative vote this coming December. According to the SOA, the ISA is holding a meeting to vote on legislative formalities of DSM amidst the global pandemic, in which many nations may be unable to travel or send representatives to vote. The SOA accuses the ISA of holding this meeting to push the DSM agenda through and intentionally excluding these nations from voting on matters, often citing the #WeSeaYou hashtag for social media engagement.

We urge both conservation groups such as the SOA and administrative organizations like the ISA to work together to find a common ground in instances such as these. While DSM does show signs of promise of supplying the ever-increasing demand for battery metals in the near term, it is absolutely essential that the integrity of the ocean be the most important factor in these decisions. Rushing into opening DSM for commercial use can be a very risky move on the ISA’s behalf, and could lead to very severe consequences if not properly calculated.

What are your thoughts on DSM and the ISA’s vote this upcoming December? Leave your comments below — we’d love to hear both sides of the argument to promote an environment of healthy debate and learning.

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