Cindy Lee Van Dover is one of the few people on Earth to have seen the denizens of the deep up close.
She’s been on dozens of submersible dives to explore colonies of strange animals, worms and microbes that thrive on hot water percolating out of the sea floor, which researchers believe may have been the cradle of life.
“There are creatures of extraordinary beauty down there, exquisitely adapted to their environment,” she said.
There are also such rich deposits of gold, silver, zinc and copper that companies want to start “open-cut” mining around deep sea vents, with a Canadian company leading the way in waters in the southwest Pacific Ocean. Van Dover, a leading U.S. marine biologist at Duke University, is calling for deferral of “wholesale commercial mining” of the seabed until conservation plans are in place.
In a report to be published today in the journal Nature, she likens deepsea vents to the geysers in Yellowstone National Park, one of the most celebrated natural wonders in the U.S.
“It is easy to see what would have been lost had Yellowstone been turned over to miners instead of park rangers,” writes Van Dover, who says there is an “urgent need” for regulation and conservation planning before companies start digging into the sea floor.
In January, Nautilus Minerals of Toronto won the world’s first deepsea mining lease from the government of Papua New Guinea. Its target: copper and gold around hydrothermal vents 1,600 metres underwater.
The company says it plans to start mining within three years and dig into the sea floor to depths of 20 to 30 metres. The mine, says Van Dover, will disrupt “an area equivalent to about 10 football fields.”
The International Seabed Authority, which has jurisdiction over mineral resources in international waters, has also received applications for mining exploration of other sea-floor deposits.
The China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association has its sights on the Southwest Indian Ridge, and Russia has applied to work on the mid-Atlantic Ridge.
Marine and environmental scientists have been saying for years that vent sites need protection, but Van Dover reports policies for conservation “have not kept pace” with mining interests.
In international waters, she says, “there are gaps — some say chasms — with regard to regulation, governance and conservation of special habitats in the deep sea, whether they are hydrothermal vents, cold seeps or deepwater coral reefs.”
And rules that do exist are inconsistent.
“The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations lists hydrothermal vents as vulnerable marine ecosystems to be protected from regulated fishing,” she says.
“As a result, seamounts in the South Pacific are protected against bottom fishing. But mineral extraction, which has the potential to destroy the very same habitat, is not prohibited.”
In territorial waters standards are developing “ad hoc,” says Van Dover, who has done research for Nautilus, which has funded studies on the impacts of their proposed deepsea mining operation in waters off Papua New Guinea.
Papua New Guinea’s national environment agency “has not yet set aside sea floor vent ecosystems for conservation in any systematic manner that might protect biodiversity from the effects of mining,” she says.
Van Dover would prefer vents to be off limits but says commercial pressures, and rising prices for minerals, make deepsea mining almost inevitable.
There is an “urgent need” to establish regulations and conservation guidelines before mining begins in international waters, says Van Dover. And she says countries allowing mining in their waters should comply with global conservation targets, adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity.