Deep-sea mining drives Cook Islands’ huge marine park

The marine park will cover approximately 2.5 per cent of the entire Pacific Ocean Copyright: Flickr/ mrlins

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Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna has disclosed that his plan to turn half of the Pacific island state and its waters into the largest marine park in the world will be launched in August 2012.

He told the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi (12-15 December) – which has a focus on environmental data – that "I have done this, in truth, with very little information at hand."

Such information was scarce and costly to obtain, he told delegates, a refrain that was echoed throughout the meeting.

The park will cover around 1 million square kilometres – approximately 2.5 per cent of the entire Pacific Ocean, according to the IUCN (International Union for the Conversation of Nature).

"We want to be the cleanest and greenest destination in the world," Puna told SciDev.Net, adding that another government target was for renewables to provide all Cook Islands energy by 2020.

But he admitted that the real reason behind the marine park declaration was the prospect of deep-sea mining of rare minerals.

"We have minerals in our ocean," he said. "It’s just a matter of coming up with the technology to exploit it but not damage the environment. That’s why we’re keen to [set up] this marine park first so that it sets the standards for any exploitation: that’s why we’re doing it."

Just as the United Arab Emirates had based its fortunes on oil, Pacific islands may do so on sea-floor mineral deposits and rare earth minerals, the prime minister hinted.

A recent government-commissioned paper estimated the value of manganese nodule deposits in the state’s waters at US$146 billion.

The nodules are mainly on the north of the islands, so the marine reserve was established around the southern group of islands, the prime minister told SciDev.Net.

"Even if mining is to take place we need to be very conscious of any possible effects on the environment,” he said. The government would be “guided by science: we have to be," Puna added.

The marine park would help set high environmental standards, including regulations covering potential exploration and exploitation of deep-sea minerals, he said.

In the last two years Cook Islands has passed a deep sea mining law; set up a ministry and task force; appointed a special adviser; and is developing national policy on deep sea mining.

Sylvia Earle, founder, chairman and explorer-in-residence of the US-based National Geographic Society, told SciDev.Net thatthe marine area around the islands was totally unknown, and "the goal should be to explore first, so you really know what is there."

Surging interest in deep-sea metal mining in the Pacific has prompted island nations to work together to develop their environmental protection capacity. Member countries of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community started working on policy and legislation earlier this year.