[MANILA] Surging interest in deep-sea metal mining in the Pacific Ocean has prompted island nations to work together to develop the scientific capacity needed to protect their environment.
The move follows the discovery of large deposits of rare-earth metals such as scandium on the seabed near Hawaii, Tahiti and other locations in the eastern South Pacific and central North Pacific. The latest discovery was reported by Japanese researchers in Nature Geoscience earlier this month (3 July).
Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals is already planning a deep-sea copper and gold mine at the Solwara 1 site near Papua New Guinea from 2013. And last week (19 July), the UN's International Seabed Authority approved applications from China and Russia, and companies sponsored by Nauru and Tonga, to explore deposits around hydrothermal vents in the eastern central Pacific Ocean.
But inadequate international legal safeguards for such mining are causing concern that it could damage the unique biodiversity surrounding deep-sea vents, which spew hot, sulphurous water into the ocean, forming deposits that contain economically important metallic minerals.
Member countries of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) established a Deep Sea Minerals project in March under its Applied Geoscience and Technology Division (SOPAC) and met last month (6–8 June) to begin developing policy and legislation.
The project is funded by a grant of €7.7 million (US$11.1 million) from the European Union and will be implemented by 2014 in 15 Pacific states.
Fiji-based SOPAC provides earth sciences information and services to SPC countries and is funded by member states and donors.
The project's leader, Akuila Tawake, said there has been plenty of research into deep-sea minerals over the past 40 years, but much more is needed to understand the likely impacts of mining and to protect the environment.
"The need to carry out the precautionary approach came out [of the meeting] loud and clear," he told SciDev.Net.
Tawake added that several countries had approached SOPAC for technical advice relating to the exploration and mining of seabed minerals.
Under a draft plan, the project will first develop a regional framework and then help countries develop policy and legislation over the next four years. It will also map the information on deep-sea minerals, Tawake said.
Michael Lodge, legal counsel for the International Seabed Authority, based in Jamaica, said: "There are no regulations addressing waste removal in seabed mining since nobody has done it yet, so it's very hard to regulate until we know exactly what technology is going to be used."
He added that standards must be the same for all countries, and that there are many questions to resolve.
Community leaders in Papua New Guinea have condemned the Solwara project, claiming that it could have many unknown consequences.
Nature Geoscience doi: 10.1038/ngeo1185 (2011)