deep-sea mining environment

Canadian company gets first license for deep-sea mining

Environmentalists are incensed at the potential for ecological disaster

Davey Jones’ locker is about to get raided; despite fervent opposition from local activists and environmental groups, Papua New Guinea has granted a Canadian firm (aptly named Nautilus Minerals) a license to mine 1.6km beneath the Bismarck Sea, 50km off the coast of the PNG island of New Britain. Project Solwara 1 has a 20-year contract to mine copper and gold; an endeavour other mining companies are watching with great interest. Environmental groups are outraged by what they say is a major threat to marine life and their habitat that could have untold effects on the eco-system and food chain.

How it works

Nautilus Minerals will extract gold and copper by levelling underwater hydrothermal “chimneys” i.e. slicing off sedimentary deposits that form around hydrothermal vents which spew out vast amounts of minerals. Sedimentary deposits are piped to a ship where ore will be separated out before pumping the remaining liquid back to the seafloor.

Widespread opposition

Activists claim an environmental report by Nautilus doesn’t accurately address the environmental impact that the mining will have on ecosystems. It also doesn’t offer contingency plans for major accidents. Opposition to the project has united under the banner of the Deep Sea Mining (DSM) Campaign where it is lobbying for the retraction of Nautilus’ mining licenses.  Helen Rosenbaum, the campaign’s co-ordinator; “The big question the locals are asking is ‘What are the risks?’ There is no certain answer to that, which should trigger a precautionary principle. But Nautilus has found a place so far away from people that they can get away with any impacts. They’ve picked an underfunded government without the regulation of developed countries that will have no way of monitoring this properly.”

The DSM compiled their own report which claims that deep sea mining will wipe out organisms unique to the hydrothermal chimneys yet to be discovered by science, while sediment plumes caused by mining will expose marine life to toxic metals. “There are indirect impacts that could clog the gills of fish, affect photosynthesis and damage reefs,” says Rosenbaum. These dangerous metals could work their way up the food chain and be consumed by animals and humans.

Supporters of deep sea mining claim that it will have far less impact on the environment than above-ground mines. The sediment is rich in metals, so less has to be displaced in order to get the same yield.  Chris Yeats, a geologist at CSIRO, claims that the impact on marine life will be minimal; “At those depths there are bacteria, but there’s a cut off at around 1,000m where most fish are, so it should have little impact. Unlike a terrestrial mine, you don’t have to build infrastructure such as roads and you don’t displace people. You chop off one of these venting chimneys and another one will grow back, so it’s a little like the mining equivalent of cutting grass.”

With no accurate measurement of how the mining will impact the landscape of the ocean floor and no plans to restore the environment once mining is complete, thousands of unknown species seem doomed to extinction before we have begun to explore them.

Sign the petition to revoke Nautilus’ license here.


Nikki is an author and writer specializing in green living ideas and tips, adventure travel, upcycling, and all things eco-friendly. She's traveled the globe, swum with sharks and been bitten by a lion (fact). She lives with her husband and a very bad dog.

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2 thoughts on “Canadian company gets first license for deep-sea mining

  1. Natalie Lowrey

    Thanks Nikki for this article on deep sea mining and highlighting the resistance against this ‘frontier’ industry. Just one correction the report wasn’t spearheaded by Alex Rogers, zoology professor from University of Oxford. It was funded by Mining Watch Canada, The Packard Foundation and Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (Papua New Guinea). The report was authored by Dr. Helen Rosenbaum, campaign coordinator of the Deep Sea Mining campaign.

    Alex Rogers, Professor, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford; Scientific Director of the International Programme on State of the Ocean Jeff Kinch, Principal, PNG National Fisheries College, New Ireland Province, PNG Stuart Kirsch, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, The University of Michigan were all expert contributors.

    Thanks again for you interest in the campaign
    Natalie Lowrey


    Natalie Lowrey
    Communications, Deep Sea Mining Campaign
    Affiliated with Friends of the Earth Australia
    Mob: +61 421 226 200
    E-mail: [email protected]
    Skype: Natalie Lowrey

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