Hydrothermal vents at the Dom João De Castro bank in the north Atlantic Ocean are unusually shallow and support unique communities of organisms, often with special properties that interest both scientists and industry. Photo: Gavin Newman / Greenpeace
Cape Town – It is critical that governments agree on a UN treaty strong enough to pave the way for the creation of a network of ocean sanctuaries that will be off limits to all forms of industrial exploitation, including deep-sea mining.

This was the call in a newly released Greenpeace report that warned of ­“irreversible harm” from deep-sea mining.

The world’s oceans could face severe and irreversible harm unless tighter environmental safeguards are put in place to protect them from the risks of deep-sea mining, warns the In Deep Water report.

Shining a light on this emerging threat, the report shows that the deep-sea mining industry is aware that their activities could result in the extinction of unique species, and calls on governments to agree on a strong Global Ocean Treaty at the UN that puts conservation, not exploitation, at the heart of ocean governance.

Louisa Casson of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign said the health of oceans was closely linked to humanity’s survival.

“Unless we act now to protect them, deep-sea mining could have devastating consequences for marine life and humanity.

‘‘The deep sea is the largest ecosystem on the planet and is home to unique creatures that we barely understand. This greedy industry could destroy wonders of the deep ocean before we even have a chance to study them,” she said.

To date, only around 0.0001% of the deep-sea floor has been explored or sampled by scientists.

“It’s critical that governments agree on a UN treaty strong enough to pave the way for the creation of a network of ocean sanctuaries that will be off limits It also needs to enforce much higher environmental standards for any such activity outside of these sanctuaries,” Casson said.

The Greenpeace report cites scientists, governments, environmentalists and representatives of the fishing industry who warn of the inevitable threats to marine life across vast areas of the world’s oceans from mining machinery and toxic pollution, if governments allow deep-sea mining to begin. 

The report also explains how deep-sea mining could make the climate emergency worse by disrupting “blue carbon” stores in sea floor sediments.

Greenpeace Africa senior Climate and Energy Campaign manager Melita Steele said deep-sea mining would cause inevitable and irreversible harm to biodiversity, including the extinction of some species found nowhere else on the planet.

“The global climate crisis means that we don’t have the luxury of ignoring dire warnings.

‘‘The deep sea locks away carbon absorbed from the atmosphere and helps limit and slow climate breakdown. The risks of disturbing its ability to store carbon are too real to be ignored,” said Steele.

Although commercial deep-sea mining has not yet begun, 29 exploration licences have been granted to countries including China, Korea, the UK, France, Germany and Russia, who have laid claim to vast areas of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, covering an area of around 1million square kilometres - almost two times the surface area of Spain.

The American weapons giant Lockheed Martin’s subsidiary has two exploration licences sponsored by the UK.

Publication of the report comes as the Greenpeace ship, Esperanza, is en route to the mid-Atlantic, where it will conduct new research at the Lost City, a spectacular formation of actively venting hydrothermal chimneys that tower above the sea floor and may hold clues to the evolution of life.

Greenpeace said that despite being identified by Unesco as meeting World Heritage status, the Lost City is under threat after it was included in an area of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge covered by a deep-sea mining exploration contract granted to the Polish government in February last year.