Deep-Sea Mining Harms Whales

Some people think offshore wind development harms whales. However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there is no evidence. There is evidence that deep-sea mining harms whales. 

Deep-Sea Mining and Habitat Destruction

According to recently published research, deep-sea mining threatens global whale populations. Conducted by the University of Exeter and Greenpeace Research  Laboratories, the study says deep-sea mining could cause “significant risk to ocean ecosystems” with “long-lasting and irreversible” impacts.

“This report makes it clear that if the deep sea mining industry follows through on its plans, the habitats whales rely on will be in even greater danger,” said Arlo Hemphill, Greenpeace USA’s Project Lead on Deep Sea Mining, in a statement. “Instead of opening up a new industrial frontier in the largest ecosystem on earth, we should establish ocean sanctuaries to protect biodiversity.”

Fragmented Jurisdiction and the Global Commons

Coastal states have the rights to minerals within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) within 200 nautical miles of their coastline. Some commercial shallow seabed mining has occurred within EEZs. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) regulates minerals on the deep seabed in the area beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ). The study focused on deep seabed mining in the ABNJ. 

The study criticizes what it calls the “current fragmented nature of ocean governance” of mining activities as hindering conservation because part of the seabed is under the jurisdiction of coastal states, and parts are under ISA jurisdiction. The ISA issued 31 exploration contracts in the ABNJ, as of February 2023, for the three main mineral types. The ISA is an international UN organization, but its work’s transparency is questioned, according to the study. 

Headlong Toward Commercializing the Sea Floor

Commercial-scale deep seabed mining has not yet occurred. However, the ISA continues working on draft regulations for exploring minerals in the ABNJ. If deep-sea mining companies gain permission, giant machines will invade deep-sea ecosystems and produce sounds that could overlap with the frequencies whales use to communicate, the report states. There are 17 exploratory deep-sea mining licenses in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCA), where there are the globally endangered blue whales. 

Noise and light pollution, along with the dispersal of sediment plumes, are among the potential impacts of mining. However, habitat loss will be the most significant impact. Whales inhabit areas of the oceans where there are mineral deposits. The CCZ in the Eastern North Pacific contains manganese nodule extraction. Many whale populations are also in the area, and some are globally threatened. 

Countries agreed on a target of protecting 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030 in December 2022 at COP15 in Montreal. Over 50 High Ambition Coalition countries promised a UN Ocean Treaty in 2022. However, those countries failed to agree on specific issues, including financing and monetary benefit sharing of the treaty. The 30 percent by 2030 target is what scientists say is needed to recover from pollution and overfishing. 

“This month, world leaders have an opportunity to take a huge step in that direction by adopting a Global Oceans Treaty that puts conservation, not exploitation, at the heart of how governments approach the ocean,” Hemphill said. “Governments cannot uphold their commitments to protect the oceans if they allow deep sea mining to start.”

Photo by Thomas Lipke on Unsplash

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman, freelance writer/journalist/copyeditor Twitter: @gmcheeseman

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