Deep sea mining, Francesca Santoro: “Crucial days to defend ocean biodiversity, the precautionary principle must be applied”.


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In Jamaica, work is underway by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to discuss licenses for deep-sea mining. Recently, Ireland, Brazil, Canada, Finland and Portugal joined the countries calling for a moratorium on deep sea mining.

Francesca Santoro_Senior Programme Officer per IOC-UNESCO e responsabile a livello mondiale dell’Ocean Literacy per il Decennio del Mare
Francesca Santoro

“We know little about the impacts that deep-sea mining can have, especially in the long term. That’s why it’s crucial to adopt the precautionary principle while scientific research is carried out. It would be important to consider these aspects, especially in the context of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.” This is how Francesca Santoro, Senior Program Officer of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) commented on the work of the 28th session, currently underway in Kingston, Jamaica, from 10 to 21 July with the Council, from 24 to 28 July with the Assembly, organized by ISA, the United Nations body that governs mineral extraction activities in the ocean and which will have to discuss permits related to the exploitation of minerals on the seabed.

Deep sea mining, i.e. the extraction of metallic mineral resources in the ocean, generates impacts on the ocean that are not yet fully understood, measured or measurable. The “Look Down” awareness campaign, launched in 2022, has sought to help governments accelerate regulations of this practice. The promoted moratorium seeks to assist the development of seabed regulation, at least until research provides clearer answers. In recent days during the ISA proceedings – Ireland, Brazil, Canada, Finland and Portugal have joined the countries calling for a halt to deep sea mining activities, thus joining Fiji, Palau, Samoa, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, FSM (Federated States of Micronesia), Spain, New Zealand, France, Germany, Panama, Vanuatu, Dominican Republic, Switzerland and Sweden.

“It is really encouraging to see that many countries are joining the call for an international moratorium – explains Francesca Santoro – to block the possibility of carrying out extraction activities until there is a more precise picture of the environmental consequences, in order to protect the Ocean. ”

The demand for minerals such as nickel, cobalt, copper or manganese is consistently increasing worldwide. “Minerals are critical for the ecological transition, but it is essential to fully understand the environmental impact of seabed mining and to compare this practice with the environmental impact of this type of activity in terrestrial areas,” explains Francesca Santoro.

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Research on the impact of these activities on the ocean floor is still incipient, but it is known that one of the main effects is related to the creation of sediment clouds, which contribute to increasing the turbidity of the water column and the modification of marine ecosystems, in particular creating a negative impact on pelagic organisms, i.e. those organisms that swim and move in the water column following the currents.

“Increased turbidity also reduces the availability of sunlight in the water and therefore affects marine organisms capable of photosynthesis. In addition, there is clearly a direct impact on seafloor marine ecosystems and benthic organisms, which will be removed along with the sediments.” Recently, scientists discovered more than 5,000 new species living on the seafloor in an untouched area of the central equatorial Pacific Ocean (the Clarion-Clipperton Zone), which has been identified as an area of interest for mining, an operation that would put biodiversity at risk.

It is therefore necessary to continue mapping the seabed and, at the same time, to involve and raise awareness among all stakeholders about this issue, including the private sector. So far, the International Seabed Authority has carried out mapping to indicate the presence of the underwater mineral deposits identified so far. “According to United Nations data, only 25% of the ocean floor has been mapped so far. For this reason too, UNESCO’s goal, in the context of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, is to map at least 80% of the seabed by 2030, so as to be able to identify and protect as much as possible.” Ongoing projects include, for example, Seabed 2030, which aims to create a shared map of the entire ocean.

Also of great importance in this context is the adoption of the UN High Seas Treaty, which aims to include 30% of the ocean in protected areas by 2030 to safeguard and restore marine nature, and in any case requires a careful environmental impact assessment before new concessions are issued for the extraction of minerals from the seabed.

UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission

The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC-UNESCO), established in 1960 as a body of UNESCO with functional autonomy, is the only competent organization for marine sciences within the United Nations system. The main objective of the Commission is to promote international cooperation and coordinate research programs, the establishment of oceanographic services and capacity building in order to better understand the nature and resources of the ocean and coastal areas, to apply this knowledge for improved management, sustainable development, protection of the marine environment and decision-making processes of its Member States. In addition, IOC-UNESCO is recognized by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the competent international organization in the areas of marine scientific research (Part III) and marine technology transfer (Part XIV).

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