Are we facing a new battleground in whale conservation?

Conservation news


For a number of years, a quiet and off-the-radar gold-rush has been taking place. However this time round, the prospectors aren’t individuals hoping for a lucky strike – they are scientists, and corporates and governments staking claims for rare-earth metals that they say will help power our future.

Advocates say that digging up the seabed for metals would avoid the environmental damage of land-based mining, which isn’t one of their more sustainable arguments. So damage the out-of-sight seabed instead? They also argue that the precious and rare metals which can be exploited will be key to developing carbon-neutral technologies in the future, and so an imperative exists for their extraction. This is a prize that some nations will find hard to resist, regardless of longer-term consequences for wildlife and habitat.

At the end of October, the UK joined around 20 countries including Brazil, France and Germany in declaring a moratorium on deep-sea mining. This puts a temporary ban on sponsoring or supporting licences for projects to exploit metals from the seabed until enough scientific evidence was available to assess its impact. The concern is that this is all very new - some of the adverse consequences only become apparent after it has begun (we learned that from fracking...). The International Seabed Authority, which regulates deep-sea mining missed an opportunity at its most recent meeting to adopt a precautionary approach, and kicked the decision down the road to its meeting next year. Instead, its 168 members will discuss a moratorium next year.

Given that the UK Government has dragged its feet over a number of notable wildlife protection issues of late, its support for a moratorium is a welcome move, though it’s worth pointing out that they are simultaneously funding mineral “exploration” on the floor of the Pacific – there are echoes here of the dividing line between scientific and commercial whaling, but we’ll save that for another blog.

A paper earlier this year in Frontiers in Marine Science highlighted the potential impacts on whales in the vast Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a 4.5-million-square-kilometer (1.7-million-square-mile) area in the Pacific Ocean earmarked for deep-sea mining. This is home for up to 30 cetacean species, including threatened blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus), sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) and fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus). Beaked whale species, known to be highly sensitive to anthropogenic sounds such as military sonar, also inhabit the area, and as the deep-divers of the whale family are likely to be very impacted by mining exploitation.

The authors of the paper added that aside from the adverse impacts of noise, sediment plumes and discharge from disturbance on the seabed, the targeting of seamounts for exploitation was an additional concern. Seamounts are large landforms which rise from the ocean floor and are typically extinct volcanoes, and act as important offshore focal points for cetaceans that forage or regroup around them.

Our lack of knowledge about the marine environment can be summed up by the fact that just 5% of the seabed has been surveyed, let alone studied. The long-term impacts of a frenzied Yukon-style gold-rush at the bottom of our seas are almost inconceivable, and we have plenty of precedents for the exploitative path that gets cleared when money is to be made out of a natural resource.

Our work in identifying ocean hotspots for whales and dolphins will hopefully safeguard some of the more vulnerable and precious habitats. For now, while a Pause button has been pressed on deep-sea mining and exploitation, we’ll need to help make the arguments about the impacts on cetaceans and their habitats, both short and long-term.

- Sally Hamilton, ORCA C.E.O.