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This week, delegates from around the world are meeting at the United Nations for the first UN Oceans Conference, to discuss the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14: the conservation of oceans, seas and marine resources.  

We are subjecting our oceans to a barrage of assaults, many of which we are all familiar with – rising temperatures, overfishing, acidification. Less well-known are the dual threats to oceans from mining: the ongoing pollution of marine ecosystems by mine waste and the irreversible harm to deep-sea ecosystems that would result from proposed deep-seabed mining.  

Mining pollution

Each year, mining companies dump more than 180 million tonnes of hazardous mine waste into oceans, rivers, and lakes worldwide. This is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind problem – mining corporations are using the cheapest solution to disposing of the massive amounts of waste generated at their mining operations. Earthworks has documented some of the egregious examples of marine mine waste disposal in a report, Troubled Waters. Mine waste dumping in oceans has led to reduced populations of fish and bottom-dwelling organisms in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. In Norway, mine tailings are being dumped into designated national salmon fjords, which support huge fishing and tourism industries.

Deep-sea mining

Lurking around the corner is another serious threat to oceans from mining. Deep-sea mining is a high-risk, experimental industrial activity being proposed in one of the most fragile, unexplored areas of our planet. Companies from a number of countries – including the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, China — are seeking to mine metals from cobalt crusts, manganese nodules, and hydrothermal vents on the seafloor. As yet, there are no viable deep-sea mining operations – but many companies and governments are actively lobbying for that to change.

A United Nations-established body, the International Seabed Authority, is charged with regulating and granting exploration permits for deep seabed mining in waters outside national jurisdictions. It is currently in the process of developing regulations for deep-sea mining – but to date, these have been far from protective, and quite insubstantial.

Leading up to the UN Oceans Conference, ocean advocates from across the globe have joined to oppose deep-seabed mining given the threat it poses to vulnerable ocean ecosystems and species. A statement from Seas At Risk supported by 34 international organizations, including Earthworks, calls on the International Seabed Authority to halt the granting of contracts for deep-sea mining and to direct its energies to increased resource efficiency and sustainable consumption.

It’s also time to protect our oceans by permanently banning the egregious and outdated practice of dumping mine waste into oceans. There are far more responsible ways to dispose of mine waste. Countries — including Norway, Turkey, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia — must reject any new proposals that would dump mine waste into marine waters. And companies must publicly commit to taking this unsafe practice off the table once and for all.