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What does deep sea mining mean for whales and dolphins?

When I was a student studying for my geology undergraduate degree, apart from debates about what killed off the dinosaurs, the other most exciting, almost futuristic idea, was the prospect of deep-sea mining. In those days it was consideration of harvesting manganese modules, today it’s the hunt for a multitude of rare earth minerals, including lanthanum, which is much sort after for hybrid car engines.

Then the technology at the time was not up to the task, and its taken almost thirty years for the engineers to be able to extract some of these increasingly used minerals. Indeed, so serious is the interest, that many governments are preparing legislation to help control this burgeoning industry. The UK is passing a Deep Sea Mining Bill, which has its committee stage in the House of Lords on the 25th February.

The AAAS, which has just had its annual conference in Chicago, saw a group of scientists calling for a pause and period of thought before we all rush headlong into a ‘race for the deep’.

The BBC reports, ‘Initial surveys have indicated that some of the metal reserves could be very lucrative, producing materials such as copper that would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars on the London Metal Exchange. But before the extraction can begin, thorough environmental assessments had to be done, said Prof Cindy Lee Van Dover, the director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory, in Beaufort, North Carolina.

“The most effective time to do environmental management is before the mining begins. That mining has not yet commenced, and if we want to get really progressive environmental regulations, we need to do it now,” she argued.’

Noting that many whales like the sperm whale are deepwater feeders, and many beaked whales are found above deep ocean trenches that may be attractive locations for initial exportation and future exploitation, WDC is supportive of the call by Professor Cindy Lee Van Dover and others for appropriate assessments before anything happens.

With the global industry meeting in March in London at the Deep Sea Mining Summit, we are hopeful that the issue of how to approach this new industry in an environmentally sensitive way is acted upon. I notice that ‘Anthropogenic underwater noise and its potential impacts on marine life’ is actually an agenda item, along with ‘Recommendations to safe guard biodiversity and ecosystem function’ and, ‘Predicting and mitigating environmental impacts on the marine environment’. This gives me some hope that people are taking these issues seriously.

Having had to fight a rear-guard action with the oil and gas industry, we remain hopeful that this young industry may be trying to get their act together before any damage is done. We shall be watching carefully.