Five hundred miles southeast of Hawaiʻi, in international waters far out of sight of any land, there are vast mineral resources 5,000 meters below the sea. Manganese nodules, rich in commercially valuable mineral resources including nickel, copper, manganese, cobalt and rare-earth elements, overlay a broad swath of the deep-sea floor.
Now, nations are eyeing these undersea mineral resources to help meet a rapidly growing societal demand for objects like cell phones and computers which require metals such as copper, nickel, cobalt and rare-earth elements.
Large-scale mining in the deep sea has not yet begun. But at least 12 mining exploration claims, each up to 75,000 square kilometers, have already been established in the Pacific Ocean region known as the Clarion-Clipperton fracture zone (CCZ).
An administrative body called the International Seabed Authority (ISA) is charged with developing the regulations for exploration and extraction, and responsible for granting access to these mineral resources in international waters. Formed by the United Nations Law of the Sea, ISA’s duties include establishing and enforcing certain “preservation reference areas” that will remain unimpacted by mining.
The goal is to protect biodiversity and ecosystem function in the seafloor regions with manganese nodules. However, setting up such protected areas across a poorly sampled region the size of the continental United States is no small matter.
“This was unchartered territory in many ways,” said Craig Smith, a professor of oceanography in the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology. Smith proposed to convene a group of experts to help ISA define the areas to be protected within the CCZ.
“Ecosystem-based management using a spatial approach was just beginning to be accepted,” said Smith. “Using guidelines from the State of California, modified for the actual CCZ, we were able to develop a scientifically rigorous process for setting up marine protected areas in this vast deep-sea area. This is one of the first times that such an approach has been implemented.”
Smith and his colleagues published a description of their expert-driven conservation planning process in a November 2013 issue of the scientific journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The protected area network is actually both the first and the largest of its kind, covering 24 percent of the 6 million square kilometers that comprise the CCZ management area.
The effort was also unprecedented in its reach, bringing together a diverse assortment of stakeholders invested in the issue.
“Our goal was an efficient allocation that maximizes benefits of biodiversity protection and minimizes the costs to mining claims,” said Smith.
With only a few minor changes to accommodate existing claims, the ISA has accepted the forum’s recommendations on a provisional basis and is excluding new mining claims from overlapping these protected areas (called by the ISA “areas of particular environmental interest”). Now Smith and many others would like to see the ISA make the group’s recommendations, and the network of protected areas, permanent.
“Establishing protections at the international scale represents a major marine management accomplishment in areas beyond national jurisdiction,” Smith said. “Setting up marine protected areas in the high seas has long been a focus of discussion for the conservation community. This also sets a precedent for establishing protected areas before mining activities actually begin—in essence, we are closing the barn doors before the cows escape! We’re optimistic that this will lead to better management and protection of the remarkable, poorly studied ecosystems found in the deep ocean.”
For more, read the UH Mānoa news release.