Prospecting rights over huge areas of South Africa’s continental shelf have been granted to three companies searching for phosphate. It could signal the beginning of a destructive mining process which would grind up the seabed and spew sediment into the water column as liquid "dust". This would pose a threat to ocean ecosystems, fish and fisheries.
The licenses cover 150 000 km2 within South Africa’s western and southern Exclusive Economic Zone, which include KwaZulu-Natal's coastline, and were awarded to Green Flash Trading 251, Green Flash Trading 257 and Diamond Fields International by the Department of Mineral Resources.
Studies commissioned by the Safeguard our Seabed Coalition (SOSC), an alliance of non-governmental organisations, has warned that marine phosphate mining "would have severe and irreversible impacts on marine ecosystems, livelihood and food security benefits sustained by our fishing industry".
Bulk marine sediment mining uses a suction hopper dredge which gouges the sediment to a depth of three metres. Its dredge head, which is about 11 metres wide with cutting teeth and high-pressure water jets, is dragged across the sea floor, crushing hard sediment and sucking it – and everything else in the way – up a tube.
Once the phosphate has been filtered out, all excess water and fine particulate is flushed back into the sea, creating a sediment plume.
Mining would take place on the continental shelf in what is known as the benthic zone, the area just above and below the seabed. Apart from anchoring aquatic plants, it’s home to sea stars, barnacles, mussels, anemones, urchins, snails, crustaceans, mollusks, worms, groundfish and other organisms that make their home on or in the sea floor, at depths where light still penetrates.
Much of the food supply is in the form of "marine snow", small particles of decaying organic matter that slowly descend through the water column and accumulate on the ocean bed.
According to Saul Roux, a legal campaigner at the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), the impact of mining will include:
* Destruction of seabed ecosystems which are the building blocks of marine ecosystems;
*The release of hazardous substances such as radioactive materials, methane, hydrogen sulphide and heavy metals locked in the seabed;
Destruction of spawning, breeding and feeding habitats for fish species, many of which are commercially important:
Reduced light penetration and therefore photosynthesis of marine plants:
Burial and smothering of marine organisms in the mining block and surrounding areas, and:
Habitat destruction and ecosystem changes in mined areas which could be permanent, as recovery would take centuries.
The CER has flagged concern about gaps in South Africa’s legal, governance and institutional frameworks able to manage such bulk marine sediment mining. This would mean, says Roux, that the phosphate mining operations would be "unregulated and not subject to state monitoring or enforcement of its compliance with licences and environmental laws."
This would facilitate severe and irreversible damage to marine environments and fisheries.
A report commissioned by the SOSC highlights the fact that there’s no need to undertake marine phosphate mining as there are more socio-economically and environmentally friendly ways to obtain it sustainably. These include the recovery of phosphates from human and animal waste and a more efficient application of phosphate fertiliser to soils.
Despite the environmental and economic risks and after almost three years of advocacy, government has not responded to calls by the SOSC for an environmental assessment of marine phosphate mining. Neither has it taken any steps towards establishing a moratorium pending a strategic enquiry into the process.
The Mercury approached the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries for comment for this article but was unsuccessful at the time of publishing. - Conservation Action Trust