Who's Minding the Mining?

An insight into oversight

Several national and international agreements have strived to minimize and prevent ocean pollution by ships, control exploitation of the ocean in near-coastal areas and allow individual countries to impose regulations concerning resources and marine life within 200 miles of their shores. Beyond the 200-mile limit is an international zone where no one can claim rights.

Notable agreements include the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Oceans Act of 2000. But the majority of hydrothermal vents lie outside these established protections in open waters beyond the 200-mile limit.

Some seafloor mining companies have taken it upon themselves to minimize their impact on the ocean environment. For example, Nautilus Minerals completed its own environmental-impact study and published a 259-page development plan for its hydrothermal-vent mining operation in Papua New Guinea. To mitigate environmental impacts, the company has taken measures like filtering the seawater removed from sediments and piping it back to the vent field where naturally existing plumes caused by vent eruption are already high. They have also offered to move bottom-dwelling organisms during mining and bring them back once mining is complete.

But Nautilus Minerals does not represent the typical deep-sea mining company, so the conservation of the hydrothermal vents may be riding on the effectiveness of the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The international organization is charged with regulating seafloor mining in international waters with special emphasis on ensuring the marine environment is protected from any harmful effects that may arise during mining activities.

One of ISA's first priorities was the formulation of the Regulations for Prospecting and Exploration for Polymetallic Nodules, which includes the collaboration of the respective responsibilities of seabed explorers and ISA to ensure environmentally sustainable development of seabed mineral resources.

ISA carries out detailed resource assessments of areas under their authority and maintains a specialized database of information on the resources of the international seabed area. ISA also monitors the current status of scientific knowledge of the deep-sea marine environment as part of its ongoing development and formulation of the Central Data Repository. To this end, ISA supports marine scientific research in the international seabed area and disseminates the results of such research.

As mining operations begin to turn their sights to the ocean floor, conservationists are recognizing the need for proper oversight and responsible mining protocols beyond the 200-mile limits to protect hydrothermal vents and the surrounding ocean ecosystems.
For More Information
Read "Hydrothermal Vents."