Deep seabed mining – an unnecessary risk to the ocean and investors

Deep seabed mining is being advocated as necessary for decarbonising our economy, but it poses big risks to both investments and ethics

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Today is World Oceans Day. But whether you love the sea, as I do, or identify more as a landlubber, every day is an ocean day. The ocean covers 70% of the planet, creates weather systems and produces half of Earth’s oxygen – that’s every other breath you take. 

So, the ocean is a life-giver and an everyday provider. For about 1 billion people across the world, the ocean is the primary source of protein. For millions of people living along coasts and on islands, who are connected to the ocean directly and vitally, the ocean provides income, nutrition and a way of life.

For investors and maritime businesses, the ocean’s value can be measured more concretely; it’s a source of revenue, a medium by which goods are transported from producer to buyer, an investment opportunity.

But the state of the ocean today makes me want to stop and holler: SOS! In order to sustain us and to support and build investment portfolios in the long run, we must urgently move the ocean up the agenda.

Last week, during a great series of virtual global ocean meetings hosted by the World Economic Forum, one presenter said: “It is never easy to find the contours of a crisis when you are in it.” The ocean’s sheer size often masks the trouble. How can something so vast be so vulnerable? Yet we know that 66% of the marine environment has been significantly altered by human actions. Overfishing and destructive fishing, habitat loss, climate change and pollution are undermining the ability of the ocean to sustain its ecological function. From the coasts to the deep sea, no part of the ocean is exempt.

"I am sure that few investors would like to be associated with an industry that could further endanger valuable, and already vulnerable, fish populations and the fishing jobs that depend on them"

To begin to rebuild ocean resilience and safeguard the future of people and businesses relying on its health, we must transform the way we value our ocean and use its resources.

If we choose not to, the risks are huge. The risks to hundreds of millions of people and their livelihoods, those most vulnerable, is closest to my heart. But there is also bottom-line risk to businesses that rely upon a healthy ocean, and to those financing ocean-based industries.

In the context of these existing risks, how can it be that the deep ocean floor might be opened up to a new industry? Deep seabed mining is being explored by a small number of states and companies. It is based upon the idea that we can continue a linear approach to our use of finite resources, by opening up this last frontier on our planet to a new extractive practice.

Deep seabed mining is being advocated by some as the solution to the current economic system’s insatiable appetite for minerals, and as necessary for decarbonising our economy (many such minerals are used in batteries that power electric vehicles).

But the risks are enormous, and much remains to be done before any deep seabed mining activity should be permitted, if at all. The deep sea is still largely unexplored, but we know enough today about its fragility to understand that it needs to be treated with extreme caution.

Pollution is one of the ocean plagues that has cumulative and multiple effects on our ocean. The idea of introducing yet another activity set to generate enormous clouds of sediments that would choke fish and countless other animals, and disperse across large distances, is risky and unnecessary. I am sure that few investors would like to be associated with an industry that could further endanger valuable, and already vulnerable, fish populations and the fishing jobs that depend on them. 

Or imagine the potential consequences, including headlines, if beloved endangered marine life is threatened by mine plumes adding further impacts to an ocean already under pressure. 

Science today already tells us that the sores inflicted upon huge swathes of the seafloor from extractive practices might never be healed. The ability to absorb carbon, regulate the climate and provide healthy protein might be seriously reduced. The governance system that is meant to regulate the industry is far from ready, and reform is required of the very body that is meant to both administer licenses and ensure the deep sea is not harmed by mining. Profits for this industry, should it go ahead, will most likely not be shared equitably – despite it relying on the natural capital of our global commons, the international seabed and the high seas.

Instead of investing in such a destructive industry, with so many questions around its regulation, responsible investors should put their money into combatting the ailments our ocean faces today. Reducing pollution and overexploitation, and strengthening the resilience of the ocean’s natural capital, as well as the resilience of coastal communities, is where investments should go. 

This would also include investments in innovation in battery technology and in mass transit systems, making current minerals demand obsolete and setting us on a path to a circular resource economy.

Investors in the ocean space should be guided by the increasingly adopted Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles to ensure that every day continues to be an ocean day – and support a resilient, sustainable and just economy and society.

For now, a moratorium on deep seabed mining is urgently needed, and is being called for with increasing frequency by states, scientists and civil society. 

Responsible investors and ocean businesses would be well advised to listen to these calls. Both on World Oceans Day and every other day.

Jessica Battle (@Jessica_WWF) is WWF’s Senior Global Ocean Governance and Policy Expert and Lead, Deep Seabed Mining Initiative