A new international agreement is needed to police the exploitation of the deep ocean because of the rising threats of deep-sea mining and bottom trawling for fish, say scientists.
Speakers at a symposium this month (16 February) urged the UN to negotiate a new treaty for the deep ocean to supplement the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The symposium took place at the annual meeting of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) in Chicago, United States.
"This is an opportunity for scientists to voice their concerns about mounting human impacts on the once-remote deep ocean to those who have the power in their hands to make the changes," says Kristina Gjerde, high seas policy advisor for the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The deep sea makes up about two-thirds of the world's oceans. It begins at a depth of around 200 metres, both within and beyond zones of national jurisdiction.
But deep-sea environments are threatened by "imminent" mining and bottom trawling for fish, said the scientists at the meeting.
"We're calling for a new treaty to sew the gaps in international law that don't currently include biodiversity, conservation, marine genetic resources, capacity development and technology transfer for areas beyond national jurisdiction," says Gjerde.
The UN-sanctioned International Seabed Authority (ISA) was established in 1994 to regulate mineral extraction from the deep seabed outside national zones of jurisdiction. The ISA, based in Jamaica, has so far approved 19 mineral prospecting licences in the deep ocean around the world for companies and government bodies, including China and India, as well as those sponsored by the Pacific island nations of Kiribati, Nauru and Tonga [See map]. The Cook Islands have also applied to explore deep-sea mining opportunities.
The map shows prospecting licences approved so far by the International Seabed Authority. The colour-coded arrows show the approximate location of licences held by larger countries. Several smaller nations, circled in orange, have permission to prospect in the Pacific ocean. Credit: SciDev.Net; Click on the image above to enlarge
But the ISA does not regulate marine genetic resources, which could be valuable to the medical and pharmaceutical sectors, or biodiversity conservation, says Lisa Levin, director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity & Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, United States.
"The problem is that the ISA's mandate is to facilitate the extraction of minerals. They don't have a mandate to identify which parts of the sea floor are most critical to ecosystem health in the ocean," says Linwood Pendleton, senior scholar in the Ocean and Coastal Policy Program at Duke University, United States.
The new treaty would ensure that financial gains made from marine genetic resources are shared between all nations, and that new mechanisms are developed to transfer marine technology and develop capacity in this field, says Gjerde.
Significant deep sea resources are often found within the deep seas of the developing world, often within the nations' exclusive economic zones [that stretch up to 200 nautical miles from their shore] of those countries, says Levin.
"Yet those countries often don't have the necessary expertise or technology to explore the deep seabed. So they often rely on countries that do have the technology and expertise," she says.
"It's very important that we do a lot of capacity building, information sharing and transfer of expertise so that those countries are able to manage their own deep ocean resources."
The scientists at the meeting also warned that extracting minerals and precious metals from the deep sea could cause catastrophic long-term damage to marine ecology unless managed carefully.
New technology, dwindling land-based resources and high commodity prices mean that deep-sea mining is not only feasible, but imminent, says Pendleton.
"Precaution is essential," says Gjerde. "This means rules should be in place before mining begins, including measures such as environmental impact assessments, comprehensive systems of marine protected areas and the mechanisms for monitoring and controlling impacts."
She adds: "It is important to set and maintain common standards so that a few unscrupulous operators can't take advantage of countries with weak legal systems, causing irreparable harm in return for very short-term gain."
New mining ventures are underway off various Pacific islands and off the African coast, as well as on the international seabed area that lies outside nations' jurisdiction, says Gjerde.
Canadian company Nautilus Minerals had planned to mine hydrothermal vents in Papua New Guinea, but this has been delayed, says Levin.
And the Namibian government is considering leasing the deep sea bottom in its national waters for phosphate mining, although last September it placed an 18-month moratorium on all mining decisions, while it gathers new information, she adds.
"Because no mining has happened yet [anywhere in the deep sea], there's time to put some major environmental management in place," she tells SciDev.Net.
The key is to identify places where mineral wealth is high and ecological impacts are low and target mining there, says Pendleton.
Deep-sea trawling for fish has already had terrible long-lasting impacts on the deep sea, says Gjerde.
The deep sea fish populations are quickly depleted because the fish aggregate, which makes them easy to catch, and they are slow growing, living over one hundred years, says Levin.
One-fifth of the world's continental margins, an area the size of the United States and Canada combined, have already been trawled, she adds.