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Earth’s final frontier: China and the deep-sea gold rush set to cause environmental catastrophe

Earth’s final frontier: China and the deep-sea gold rush set to cause environmental catastrophe

Scientists say that a highly controversial deep-sea “gold rush” risks potentially devastating consequences for marine ecosystems, biodiversity, coastal communities and climate change.

The deep seabed is Earth’s final frontier but this mostly unexplored, dark and pristine abyss is threatened by highly destructive deep-sea mining which could be at full throttle within months.

File Photo: Pexels.com

“Most, if not all deep-sea biologists are very worried about deep-sea mining,” says Dr Moriaki Yasuhara a deep-sea ecologist and associate professor at the Swire Institute of Marine Science in the University of Hong Kong.

The deep-sea mining agenda is being led by nations like China and private corporations desperate to extract polymetallic nodules from the deep ocean floor. They say these potato-sized nuggets rich in valuable cobalt, nickel and other battery metals could be the key to the world’s sustainable future.

There is a growing chorus of dissent which insists the environmental impact of these deep-sea mining operations has not been properly assessed. They involve giant mechanical seabed tractors, hoovering up nodules before crushing them and trailing long plumes of sediment.

Polymetallic nodules. Photo: Wikicommons.

Yasuhara explains that the deep seabed can be compared to a tropical rain forest or a coral reef in terms of biodiversity but is unique because of its vast size and great depth. Until recently, this mostly pristine and precious environment has remained beyond the reach of mankind. The problem is that it is so technically challenging to reach these remote subsea habitats, several kilometres beneath the surface, that research is thin and information scarce.

“We simply don’t yet know how many deep-sea species exist,” says Yasuhara. The fear is that this environment will be devastated even before scientists can fully evaluate and understand it.

Photo: mdpi.com.

It is this lack of knowledge which prompted Yasuhara to join the 617 leading ocean scientists and policy experts from over 44 countries who signed a statement calling for a pause to deep-sea mining.

The expert statement strongly recommends that “the transition to the exploitation of mineral resources be paused until sufficient and robust scientific information has been obtained to make informed decisions as to whether deep-sea mining can be authorized without significant damage to the marine environment and, if so, under what conditions.”

It’s not only scientists and experts like Yasuhara who are calling for a moratorium on all seabed mining activity.

Last December 1, Volkswagen Group, Triodos Bank, Scania, and Patagonia joined other major companies like the BMW Group, Volvo Group, Samsung SDI, Google and Philips in pledging to keep minerals sourced from the deep sea out of their products.

There is also much concern and opposition to seabed mining at grassroots level in the Pacific Island states like Tonga, the Marshall islands and the Cook Islands. Being adjacent to the area known as the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone where most of the deep-sea mining attention is focused, they have the most to lose from any future environmental destruction.

Location of the Clarion Clipperton Zone. Photo: Wikicommons.

One of these vocal indigenous environmental concern groups, the Te Ipukarea Society in the Cook Islands, recently pointed out that the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress overwhelmingly supported a moratorium on seabed mining at its meeting in Marseilles this year. 

While 44 government representatives from 39 countries backed the moratorium, eight representatives from six countries voted against it. This included two from each of Japan, Belgium and China. Of the 32 of more than 500 NGOs from around the world that voted against the moratorium, 26 were from China.

“We simply don’t yet know how many deep-sea species exist.”


“These are the countries where a number of the companies wishing to mine the deep sea are based. It is for economic interest,” says Kelvin Passfield, technical director of the Te Ipukarea Society. 

Of course, China is far from the only player looking to engage in deep sea mining but it is heavily committed to maintaining its market dominance in rare metals and rare earth elements. It has worked tirelessly to perfect its technology and has embedded itself deeply in the regulatory body for deep-sea mining, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) based in Jamaica.

The ISA has issued 30 contracts to state-backed companies, multinational corporations and start-ups to explore more than 1.3 million square kilometres of the seabed. China holds five contracts, more than any other country, that give it the right to explore and potentially exploit 238,000 square kilometres (an area more than six times the size of Taiwan).

While private corporations are keen to exploit short-term profits for shareholders, China’s approach is long-term, strategic and politically orchestrated. It is led by state-owned enterprises like the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA) and China Minmetals Corporation, a giant international metals and mining enterprise based in Beijing. 

China was one of the first nations to maintain a permanent representative to the ISA. Tian Qi is also his country’s ambassador to Jamaica and is often featured in local newspapers extolling the virtues of the ISA and his host country.

China was also the first country in the world to sponsor and maintain contracts for exploration for all three types of mineral resources in the international seabed area, outside the Exclusive Economic Zones of individual nation states. This makes China very popular with the ISA elite because the ISA derives its operating revenue from the licence fees reported to be US$500,000 each, plus a yearly administrative fee of US$47,000 per contractor. In this sense, China is the ISA’s most valuable client.

ISA secretary general Michael Lodge. File photo: ISA.

“From being the twelfth largest financial contributor to the budget of the Authority in 2000, China is now one of the top five contributors. This is remarkable progress,” said ISA secretary general Michael Lodge in 2018 at a contract-signing ceremony for COMRA. By 2016, China was the second largest contributor to the ISA and for China it’s a shrewd strategic investment with obvious geopolitical significance.

Polymetallic nodules and crusts are two of the most important mineral deposits in the ocean. They are rich in rare earth elements, iron, manganese, copper, cobalt, nickel, and other useful metals. According to a Wall Street Journal report in December, some estimates of China’s dominance of the rare-earth industry say it mines more than 70 per cent of the world’s rare earths and is responsible for 90 per cent of the complex processing. These rare minerals are used not only in the manufacture of battery components for electric cars and renewable energy but also for smartphone touch screens and missile-defence systems.

Not only does the ISA favour the interests of mining companies over the advice of scientists but its processes for [Environmental Impact Assessment) approvals are questionable”


As if to underline the geopolitical significance of deep-sea mining to China, on December 3 as delegates prepared to travel to Jamaica for the first ISA meeting in two years, China approved the creation of one of the world’s largest rare-earths companies. China Rare Earth Group will aim to maintain the nation’s dominance in the global supply chain of the strategic metals as tensions deepen with the US.

“China is one of the most important countries with respect to the emerging seabed mining industry,” writes Richard Page, in his 2018 report on Chinese policy, activity and strategic interests relating to deep-sea mining in the Pacific region and published by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign.

Some think that China is too influential at the ISA. It’s a concern amplified by the fact that the US is one of the few nations not represented because it has not yet ratified the Law of the Sea Convention and so is ineligible for membership. 

Critics claim the ISA is guilty of corporate capture and lacks transparency, independent scrutiny and scientific credibility.

“Not only does the ISA favour the interests of mining companies over the advice of scientists but its processes for EIA (environmental impact assessment) approvals are questionable”, says Dr. Helen Rosenbaum, coordinator of the deep-sea mining campaign.

In a recent press interview, Dr Sandor Mulsow who was head of the Office of Environmental Management and Mineral Resources at the ISA from 2013 to 2019, said he had witnessed “lots of irregularities.”

Licensed exploration Areas to COMRA, totaling 275,000km.

“The way ISA is working at the moment, it is not fit to regulate any activity in the oceans,” he told reporters.

The 26th session of the International Seabed Authority closed on December 14 after several days of in-person meetings in Kingston, Jamaica. Journalists were not allowed to attend and the ISA declined to respond to any media questions sent by email from HKFP on multiple occasions.

One key aim was to agree a roadmap for a new mining code to be in place by July 2023, which will regulate all extraction or exploitation activities. Reports indicate any agreement is still a long way off.

Nauru’s President Lionel Aingimea. Photo: UN.

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Unfortunately for the deep seabed and its rich biodiversity, the clock is ticking. On June 25 this year Nauru’s President Lionel Aingimea notified the ISA of the deep-sea mining plans to be carried out by a wholly owned subsidiary of the Canadian and NASDAQ-listed The Metals Co. He triggered a legal sanction to announce they would start mining in two years’ time (June 2023) if the key mining code of practice being developed by ISA was not in place by them. Critics say this will herald an unregulated wild west-style gold rush to ravage the deep seabed.

Despite a growing consensus that it is not necessary to trash the seabed in order to secure a sustainable future for humanity, and the widespread opposition from science and policy experts to rushing blindly into seabed mining, the clock is ticking down to July 2023.

Driven by multi-billion-dollar investments and China’s long-term geopolitical ambitions, and restrained only by a regulatory body lacking in any credibility, the prospects for the planet’s last unspoiled fringes seem bleak indeed.

Dr Moriaki Yasuhara of the University of Hong Kong. Photo: HKU.

For Yasuhara, given the unprecedented levels of ocean warming and the increased acidification of the sea, combined with ignorance of the destructive impact of deep-sea mining, this is the least appropriate moment to be embarking on large-scale destructive processes on an unknown and pristine environment. He emphasises that the deep ocean constitutes more than 90 per cent of the biosphere and plays a key role in climate regulation.

“This is not the right time from a climatic perspective to be starting man-made intervention in the deep-sea environment,” he says.


Stuart Heaver at Hong Kong Free Press

Mexican fish extinct in wild successfully reintroduced

Mexican fish extinct in wild successfully reintroduced

There once was a small fish called “tequila splitfin” or “zoogoneticus tequila” that swam in a river in western Mexico, but disappeared in the 1990s. Scientists and residents, however, have achieved the return of a species extinct in nature—but conserved in captivity—to its native habitat.

Its success is now intertwined with the community’s identity and being touted internationally.

It began more than two decades ago in Teuchitlán, a town near the Tequila volcano. A half-dozen students, among them Omar Domínguez, began to worry about the little fish that fit in the palm of a hand and had only ever been seen in the Teuchitlán river. It had vanished from local waters, apparently due to pollution, human activities and the introduction of non-native species.

Domínguez, now a 47-year-old researcher at the University of Michoacán, says that then only the elderly remembered the fish called “gallito” or “little rooster” because of its orange tail.

In 1998, conservationists from the Chester Zoo in England and other European institutions arrived to help set up a laboratory for conserving Mexican fish. They brought several pairs of tequila splitfin fish from the aquariums of collectors, Domínguez said.

Zoogoneticus tequila Reintroduction Project: An International Cooperative Project by Omar Domínguez

The fish began reproducing in aquariums and within a few years Domínguez and his colleagues gambled on reintroducing them to the Teuchitlán river. “They told us it was impossible, (that) when we returned them they were going to die.”

So they looked for options. They built an artificial pond for a semi-captivity stage and in 2012 they put 40 pairs there.

Two years later, there were some 10,000 fish. The result guaranteed funding, not only from the Chester Zoo but also a dozen organizations from Europe, the United States and the United Arab Emirates, to move the experiment to the river.

There they studied parasites, microorganisms in the water, the interaction with predators, competition with other fish, and then introduced the fish in floating cages.

The goal was to re-establish the fragile equilibrium. For that part, the key was not so much the scientists as the local residents.

“When I started the environmental education program I thought they were going to turn a deaf ear to us … and at first that happened,” Domínguez said.

But the conservationists succeeded with patience and years of puppet shows, games and explanations about the ecological and health value of “zoogoneticus tequila”—the fish help control mosquitos that spread dengue.

Some residents made up a nickname for the little fish: “Zoogy.” They made caricatures and formed the “River Guardians,” a group mostly of children. They collect garbage, clean the river and remove invasive plants.

Domínguez said it is difficult to say if water quality is better because there is no previous data to compare, but the entire ecosystem has improved. The river is cleaner, there are fewer non-native species and cattle are no longer permitted to drink in some areas.

The fish rapidly multiplied inside their floating cages. Then they were marked so they could be followed and set free. It was late 2017 and in six months the population increased 55%. Last month, the fish had expanded to another part of the river.

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The reintroduction into nature of species that were extinct in the wild is complex and time-consuming. Przewalski’s horse and the Arabian oryx are among successful examples. The Chester Zoo said Dec. 29 that the tequila splitfin had joined that small group.

“The project has been cited as an International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) case study for successful global reintroductions – with recent scientific studies confirming the fish are thriving and already breeding in the river,” the zoo said in a statement.

“This is an important moment in the battle for species conservation,” said Gerardo García, the zoo’s curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates.

The IUCN’s red list of threatened species lists the tequila splitfin as endangered. Mexico’s freshwater ecosystems are under pressure from pollution, over-extraction of water resources and other factors. More than one-third of 536 species of freshwater fish that were assessed in the country are threatened with extinction, according to a 2020 report led by the IUCN and and the ABQ BioPark in the United States.

Still, in Mexico, Domínguez and his team are already beginning work on another fish that is considered extinct in the wild: the “skiffia francesae.” The Golden Skiffia could some day join “Zoogy” in the Teuchitlán river.


María Verza at Phys.org