Good news came out of Namibia last night, as the government declared an 18-month moratorium on all experimental seabed mining in Namibian waters, pending a more comprehensive environmental impact assessment. Pressure from both environmental groups and the fishing industry ultimately led to this decision. Both sets of stakeholders, as well as scientists and members of the international community, have legitimate concerns regarding the safety of seabed mining. This is the precautionary principal as it was meant to be implemented.
According to Swakopmund Matters, a seafloor mining protest group in Namibia:
The message conveyed by the Namibian decision is bold and clear. It will resonate throughout the world where battles are being fought against actions by mining companies that will harm, if not destroy, important marine areas. It will embolden all those who are standing up for the protection of their marine environments. But even more important, it will demonstrate to other governments that environmental concerns do take precedent over companies’ questionable actions when it comes to their exploitation of the oceans. Furthermore, that the Namibia government is not prepared to be a guinea pig for an untested and unknown endeavor. It refused to let its ocean and marine resources become the proverbial experimental playground.
(Source is a press release e-mailed to me.)
Unlike seafloor massive sulfate mining, marine phosphate mining occurs in relatively shallow waters (approximately 400 meters deep). Phosphate occurs in small nodules on the seabed and are spread over a wide area. Extraction is performed using seafloor vacuums that can remove more than a meter of surface sediment. Namibia has large deposits of phosphate, 1.8 billion tons, that lie at 135 to 300 meters depth. Extraction would have a catastrophic effect on the immediate benthic community and may impact surrounding communities, including commercial and subsistence fisheries.
This temporary moratorium sets an important precedent for emergent marine industries. Historically, the paradigm has been that new industries are the first to exploit new resources, with conservation measures only coming into play once problems begin to emerge. Seabed mining is among the first multinational industries that has to satisfy the requirements of sound, responsible environmental management and respond to the concerns of stakeholders before mining commences. I am hopeful that the continued pressure from many stakeholder groups on the seabed mining industry will ultimately lead to a future of, if not sustainable, than at least environmentally responsible industry.
For more on seabed and deep-sea mining, see:
- Mining the Deep Sea: what’s it worth?
- VentBase – securing the conservation of deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems
- Rumors from the Abyss: visions of a future without deep sea conservation
- A selection of primary literature on the ecology of deep-sea hydrothermal vents in Manus Basin