The United States moves towards exploration and exploitation of critical mineral resources in the deep ocean.

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2020 issue of the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is reprinted here with permission. For the latest news and analysis about the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to DSM Observer here: http://dsmobserver.com/subscribe/

Featured Image: US Exclusive Economic Zone (note: Navassa territorial claim is disputed by Haiti).

Since the signing of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the creation of the International Seabed Authority, the United States of America has been a shadow partner in the growing deep-sea mining industry. Though the United States provides scientific and technical expertise, and is a de facto participant through American-owned subsidiaries incorporated in sponsoring states, the nation with the world’s second largest exclusive economic zone never ratified the core treaties and thus has limited influence at negotiations.

While the United States made significant contributions to the early development of the industry, it has been largely inactive since the mid 1980’s, focusing instead on its offshore fossil fuel resources and leaving critical minerals in the deep ocean largely untouched. Within the US EEZ surrounding the country’s Pacific territories, in particular, a push for large, remote marine protected areas in the form of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, deep-sea mining has been effectively prohibited.  

The United States continues to assert claims over two large lease blocks in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, citing existing precedent from prior to the ISA’s creation, though no recent attempts have been made to exploit those blocks. The ISA, for its part, continues to hold those lease blocks in reserve, should the US eventually join all but a few nations who have ratified the Law of the Sea.

That general non-involvement at the policy level may soon change. In a recent Executive Order on Addressing the Threat to the Domestic Supply Chain from Reliance on Critical Minerals from Foreign Adversaries by the now-outgoing President of the United States tasked the Department of the Interior with assessing any potential national security threat posed by the nation’s reliance on critical mineral imports, securing a domestic supply chain, and funding projects to increase critical mineral production within the United States. 

“By signing the Executive Order, President Trump declared a National Emergency and called for action to expand the domestic mining industry, support mining jobs, alleviate unnecessary permitting delays, and reduce our Nation’s dependence on China for critical minerals.” says Beverly Winston of BOEM’s Office of Public Affairs. “In the few weeks since the order was signed, leadership at relevant Department of the Interior agencies have been actively engaged in identifying specific actions that can be taken to implement the order.” 

Executive Orders are not always the best indicator of changing government priorities. A more definitive approach to identifying significant policy shifts is to examine contracting opportunities through the US General Services Administration. Soon after the President’s Executive Order, a solicitation for Geophysical, Geological, and Environmental Data Collection and Analysis supporting Outer Continental Shelf Marine Minerals Stewardship contract bids of indefinite duration and indefinite quantity was posted, providing funding for a four year marine critical minerals exploration campaign through the US Department of the Interior. 

This call is a much more substantial indicator that the US is planning a more aggressive push into deep-sea minerals in the coming years. In a possibly unrelated move, the US Geological Survey is recruiting a postdoctoral fellow in Geology, geochemistry and global context of deep-ocean marine minerals.

With respect to BOEM’s four-year horizon, Winston adds that “BOEM is actively collaborating with partner agencies, such as USGS and NOAA, to better understand our marine mineral resources and associated biological communities. BOEM is a member of the newly created National Ocean Mapping, Exploration, and Characterization Council, and also co-chairs the Interagency Working Group on Ocean Exploration and Characterization. Both of these bodies will work to identify priority areas for exploration and characterization, and to coordinate personnel and funds to study the priority areas.”

While these moves point to increased deep-sea mining exploration within the US EEZ, they don’t provide nearly as much clarity on the United States’ future plans for the Area. In recent ISA council meetings, the US delegation has intervened to assert their existing claims in the CCZ, however no recent actions suggest an intent to attempt to exploit those claims. 

Notably, the recent Executive Order is directed at the Department of the Interior, while it is the Department of Commerce, within which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is housed, who would initiate any exploration or exploitation in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. 

“Currently under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA),” concludes Winston, “BOEM’s leasing authority is limited to the Outer Continental Shelf offshore the coastal states. NOAA is the implementing agency for the Deep Sea Hard Minerals Resource Act, which establishes an interim domestic licensing and permitting regime for deep seabed hard mineral exploration and mining beyond the EEZ pending adoption of an acceptable international regime.”

Though the election of President-Elect Joe Biden will likely have substantial influence on future priorities for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, it is too early to know, according to BOEM representatives, how a new administration will impact critical minerals policy. With a core policy focus on climate change, it is almost certain that securing access to the critical minerals necessary to building next-generation energy infrastructure will remain a priority for the next administration. 

Sharks, Squalene, and a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine

A bluntnose sixgill shark (Hexanchus griseus). Photo credit: NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer.

Hi, friends at Southern Fried Science!

You’ve probably seen in the media lately that there’s been a lot of coverage about whether sharks are being killed for SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. With an awesome undergraduate co-author, I’ve tried to gather some facts about what is happening (or might happen) and what it means. You can read a preprint of that work here, or read on for a short FAQ in plain English.

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Hot air for windmills, oceans get layered, and North Korean ghost ships – What’s up with the Oceans this Week

Nothing but hot air. Trump bans windmills. The President made bemused news last week during his oddly partisan attempt to ban offshore oil in several key states (though for some reason, seismic testing in those states continue, making it seem less like a ban and more like a request to “stand by”). Unsurprisingly, the offshore oil ban also brings coastal wind farm development to a halt.

The oceans are norming. In addition to everything else facing the oceans, they are increasingly stratifying. This layer cake effect could disrupt ecological processes around the world and creating new and more pronounced ocean dead zones. It’s some bad cake.

Don’t call them ghost ships. North Korea’s fishing policies are forcing fishermen to fish father afield, dangerously under supplied and under fed. Hundreds of North Korean fishing vessels, barely large enough to be called a ship and carrying, in many cases, their dead crew, are washing up along the Japanese coast.

Upwelling

Last night, the President of the United States refused to condemn white supremacists terrorist group Proud Boys, called for illegal election interference from his supporters, and threw a variety of tantrums related to his horrifically terrible tenure. Though Climate Change made a small appearance at the debate, unsurprisingly, ocean policy issued were sidelined so that POTUS would have enough time to mock a dead soldier.

Tear gassing fish, new NOAA chief, and Facebook’s flop – What’s Up With the Oceans this Week?

Tear gas is bad for fish. Surprising no one, if you unlawfully unload tons of tear gas into a peaceful crowd of protestors in order to create chaos as a precedent for state violence, that tear gas will eventually find its way into drains and all drains lead to the ocean. And that is bad news for marine life.

More turnover at NOAA. NOAA has appointed meteorologist and climate change contrarian Ryan Maue to replace Dr. Craig McLean as Chief Scientist.

Facebook continues to Facebook. Facebook vowed to fight climate change denial and uplift climate science. Instead, they censored hundreds of climate activism who were protesting the Coastal Link pipeline.

How anglerfish hack their immune system to hang on to a mate

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2020 issue of the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is reprinted here with permission. For the latest news and analysis about the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to DSM Observer here: http://dsmobserver.com/subscribe/

When you live in the darkness of the abyss, finding a partner is hard and keeping a partner is even harder. Deep-sea anglerfish, one of the iconic ambassador species of the deep ocean, have found a novel solution to this problem–dwarf males are sexual parasites that latch onto the body of the much larger female anglerfish and then physically fuse to their partner, becoming permanently attached to the point where they share a circulatory and digestive system. 

Parasitic dwarf males are uncommon, but not unheard of, throughout the animal kingdom. Osedax, the deep sea bone eating worm, also maintains a harem of dwarf males in a specialized chamber in their trunk. But few species, and no other vertebrates, go to quite the extremes of the anglerfish. And with good reason. 

Vertebrate immune systems have a long shared history. The Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) is a suite of genes shared among all gnathostomes–the taxonomic group that contains all jawed vertebrates, from fish to fishermen. It creates the proteins which provide the foundation for the adaptive immune system, the core complex which allows bodies to tell self from no-self, detect pathogens, and reject non-self invaders. Suppressing the MHC seriously inhibits a vertebrate’s ability to fight off infection. 

Incidentally, not all deep-sea anglerfish have parasitic dwarf males, and the species most often presented as a type specimen in the popular press, the humpback anglerfish Melanocetus johnsonii, is one of several that do not have permanently attached parasitic dwarf males. M. johnsonii males are free-swimming throughout their life, they’re just small and clingy.

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The climate denial industry in full swing, 5 storms rage across the Atlantic, and Orcas seek vengeance – What’s up with the Oceans this week?

Denial Incorporated. Over the weekend, the Administration announced the appointment of David Legates, an anti-science activist embedded in the climate denial industry. Legates will answer directly to acting NOAA administrator Neil Jacobs. Expect to see Legates making the media rounds downplaying the impact of climate change on the occurrence of more frequent and powerful tropical storms because…

There are currently 5 active tropical cyclones in the Atlantic. This has only ever been documented once before. Historically, we are just entering the most active part of the Atlantic Hurricane season and it’s already time to move on to Greek letters. The next earliest 20th named storm was Tropical Storm Tammy, which formed October 5, 2005.

Killer whales are attacking boats in the Mediterranean. Ok, then.

Upwelling.

This is possibly the grimmest climate change model I’ve seen in a long time: New Climate Maps Show a Transformed United States.

Great Whites get down to business, the Ocean Cleanup flounders, and a livestock carrier goes down – What’s up with the Ocean this week?

Frisky business for Great White Sharks. For only the second time since western scientists began studying the ocean, Great White Shark mating has been documented in the wild. Shark sex is infrequently observed in the wild, and this fisherman’s observations can provide invaluable insight in the lives and loves of this iconic species.

The Ocean Cleanup. Dr. Rebecca Helm of UNC Asheville spent the last week doing an extensive dive into the problems surrounding the Ocean Cleanup Project. The who thread, including all the updates, is worth a read for anyone interested in tackling the global problem of ocean plastics with practical solutions that don’t increase harm to marine ecosystems.

Search called for Gulf Livestock 1. The livestock carrier Gulf Livestock 1 capsized last week amidst heavy storms. Though three crew members have been found, the remaining crew, as well as the ship and its 6000 cattle, are still missing. The search was suspended earlier this week, due to weather.

Upwell

Burning Man, the legendary gathering in the Nevada desert, had its own shark jumping moment. After cancelling the main event due to the pandemic raging across America (and pretty much under control almost everywhere else), organizers decided to hold a mini-Burning Man on the actual playa–San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. It was a reckless and selfish gathering of 1000 people that put people’s lives at risk and forced the mayor to shut down beach access, depriving many city-dwellers of their nearest connection to nature in an age of lockdowns and limited travel.

New dives to Challenger Deep raise old questions about privatization and exploration

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is reprinted here with permission. For the latest news and analysis about the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to DSM Observer here: http://dsmobserver.com/subscribe/

Featured Images: Friends of the Mariana Trench during the 2008 campaign to obtain Marine National Monument status
Featured Images: Friends of the Mariana Trench during the 2008 campaign to obtain Marine National Monument status for the Mariana Trench and surrounding island and seamounts.

For over 50 years, deep-ocean explorers have been able to claim that more people have walked on the moon than have dived to the deepest point on the Earth. Only two men descended into Challenger Deep in the 20th century–Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard–they were joined in the early 2010s by director James Cameron. Earlier this year, Victor Vescovo became the fourth to reach the bottom of Challenger Deep and, over the course of several subsequent dives this summer, the ranks of those who’ve reached the deepest ocean has swelled. 

Astronaut, oceanographer, and former NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan and explorer and mountaineer Vanessa O’Brien became the first and second woman to dive to the bottom of Challenge Deep aboard the privately owned HOV Limiting Factor, piloted by Vescovo and his team. 

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Dead dolphins wash up in Mauritius, mining for cobalt on the bottom of the sea, and Norwegian whaling – What’s up with the Ocean this week?

The disaster continues in Mauritius. With the cleanup and salvage well underway, Mauritius has begun assessing the broader impacts of the disastrous bulk carrier wreck. Fishermen have reported seeing 30 to 30 dead dolphins floating in a lagoon near the wreckage including mothers and calfs. Dead whales, as well as sick and injured whales, are also being recovered close to the site of the spill.

Deep-sea mining cracks the crust. The world’s first experimental deep-sea mining operation for cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts has successfully recovered ore from the seafloor. For a deeper looking into the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to the DSM Observer.

The mining machine on the seabed. Photo courtesy JOGMEC.

Whaling in Norway. Commercial whaling in Norway has reach a four-year-high. As of last week, Norwegian whaling vessels had killed 481 minke whales this season. The Norwegian whaling season is not over.

Upwelling.

I don’t have a huge soapbox to stand on this week, but there have been several good balanced articles about deep-sea mining that are worth a read, including this from Scientific American – Deep-Sea Mining: How to Balance Need for Metals with Ecological Impacts – and this by the Secretary-General of the International Seabed Authority, which oversees seabed mineral rights in areas beyond national jurisdiction – How to Mine the Oceans Sustainably.

Taking the bait, chopping up tankers, the calamari comeback, and some #scicomm advice– What’s up with the Ocean this week?

August 26, 2020

Don’t take the bait. Baiting fish for the sake of tourists has always engendered a fair bit of criticism. New research out of the Cook Islands demonstrates that frequent baiting at popular snorkeling sites alters fish behavior and causes harm to the reef ecosystem. Just don’t do it.

Etat-major des Armees/EPAhandout

More trouble in Mauritius. The government of Mauritius has begun the process of scuttling the bulk carrier that ran aground and spilled thousands of gallons of fuel oil in one of the worst environmental disasters for this small island nation. Though the cleanup is underway, the impacts will be felt for generations. Local reports are already showing a 5-fold increase in the level of arsenic found in fish near the wreck site.

All hail the Calamari Comeback State. Why is Rhode Island the Calamari Comeback state? Climate change and overfishing. Squid are moving north into Rhode Island’s waters and all their other major seafood products are becoming increasingly depleted due to overfishing and environmental degradation. What a comeback!

Upwelling (the part where Andrew gets on his soapbox)

Last week on Twitter I did a little a little briefing on competence laundering and how science communication can lend credibility to un-credible individuals by over-analyzing inane statements. Edited and reprinted below.

Sometimes, the current POTUS will go off on a weird nonsense ramble about a topic your have expertise in. There is a huge, natural desire to contextualize those statements and find the nuggets of reality in them.

This is competence laundering.

I’m guilty of it too. It’s so hard to resist talking about the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act when the President says we should buy Greenland. I was more vigilant during yesterday’s shark nonsense. Trying to contextualize what he’s really talking about is to ascribe a level of understanding to a topic that he clearly does not have.

Maybe he saw a thing about great whites on Fox News. Maybe he got a briefing about seal and salmon conflict in the Pacific Northwest. Or maybe he saw the Shark Week Mike Tyson Special and can’t tell the difference between the heavyweight champion of the world and the man who sung Kiss from a Rose because he’s an unrepentant racist.

You don’t know which it is. Trying to contextualize the inane ramblings of an incurious man does nothing but obscure the profound incompetence. It’s competence laundering. We don’t have to be complicit. The answer to what the heck he was talking about [last week] is “I don’t know and he doesn’t either.”