An international team of researchers including scientists at the University of Plymouth has developed a comprehensive set of criteria to help the International Seabed Authority (ISA) protect local biodiversity from deep-sea mining activities.
The guidelines, outlined in research published in Science Advances, should help identify areas of particular environmental importance where no mining should occur.
The ISA, which was established under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, is responsible for reviewing all applications to mine in waters outside national jurisdiction, and for putting into place an environmental management plan for these areas.
The paper recommends a set of 18 quantitative metrics that regulators can use to assess whether the number, shapes, sizes and locations of sites within a proposed 'no-mining zone' network will be sufficient to protect a wide range of habitats and species that might otherwise be harmed by mining activities.
The University is one of 16 international institutions who co-authored the research, with the Plymouth contribution being led by Associate Professor in Marine Ecology, Dr Kerry Howell. She said:
“This is an important step forward in the conservation and management of the high seas. We are increasingly using the deep sea to provide food and raw materials to support the growing global population. If deep-sea mining is going to happen, it is critical that we ensure effective and long-lasting protection of marine species and habitats within no-mining zones. Our work provides a scientifically robust, internationally agreed example of how that might be achieved.”
Although the study focused on future mining scenarios on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, its guidelines are flexible enough to be adapted for use in other deep-sea locations, the researchers say.
The guidelines also take into account future changes that are likely to occur on the seafloor in the next 100 years due to climate change.
Much of the input used to refine the new framework came from data and results shared at two large-scale Strategic Environmental Management Plan in the Atlantic (SEMPIA) workshops, and from ongoing research by the paper's authors.
Daniel C. Dunn, assistant research professor in the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, is one of the study’s lead authors. He said:
"Areas near active hydrothermal vents on mid-ocean ridges have been approved for future exploration for ore deposits. But the mining has not yet started, so we still have an opportunity to put into place effective environmental management plans. This paper contributes to that process by identifying a framework for developing a network of areas that should remain off-limits. This has been a massive three-year international effort, with input from more than 80 researchers, lawyers, mining contractors and policymakers, to help inform and guide ISA policies and practices so that sound environmental management plans can be put into place before the mining starts.”
Cindy Van Dover, Harvey W. Smith Professor of Biological Oceanography at Duke and the other co-lead author, added: "When we developed these metrics, we looked at not only what the deep sea is like now, but how it may look in the future under the influence of climate-driven changes in pH, temperature, and organic carbon and dissolved oxygen concentrations. This is, by necessity, a representative approach and we still really don't know much about what's down there, so we have to use proxies to make educated guesses about the different types of habitats and marine life."
The full study - A strategy for the conservation of biodiversity on mid-ocean ridges from deep-sea mining - is published in Science Advances, doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aar4313.