The future of deep-sea mining: symposium wrap-up

On the 4th of December, SEAS fellows Ed Nedelciu (System Dynamics Group, UiB) and Aistė Klimašauskaitė (Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities, UiB) organized a symposium on deep-sea mining (DSM). This event brought together nine researchers with diverse background, from marine biology to Ocean law and anthropology. The speakers shared their expertise and perspectives on deep-sea mining and discussed whether and how this sector might evolve in the future. Should it? The event was planned one month before the Norwegian Parliament voting on whether to open up 281 200 km² on the Norwegian continental shelf for deep-sea mining exploration and exploitation.

Deep-sea mining symposium, session 2

In the first panel, we hosted Pål Buhl-Mortensen from the Institute of Marine Research, Mari Heggernes Eilertsen from Centre for Deep Sea research (UiB), Håkon Larsen from the Deparment of Social Antropology (UiB), Ed Nedelciu from the System Dynamics Group (UiB), and Dorothy Dankel from SINTEF Ocean. In the second panel, we hosted Tina Kutti from the Institute of Marine Research, Laura Drivdal who is now a senior academic librarian and former researcher at the Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (UiB), Knut Knapskog from the Faculty of Law (UiB), and Edvard Hviding from the Department of Social Anthropology (UiB). The event was moderated by Aistė Klimašauskaitė and Elyse Hauser, a visiting journalist at the Centre for Investigative Journalism (UiB).

Pål Buhl-Mortensen was the first speaker of the day. He is a scientist behind the MAREANO program, which is a government-funded program, designed by scientists, with a goal to inform decision-making and management. Pål introduced the audience to the sea in Norway by pointing out that ~90% of the species in Norway are… in the sea. He also put things into context, taking our attention to the deepest point on the Norwegian Continental Shelf – Molloy Deep at 5,569 meters. For comparison, he showed pictures of Jotunheimen, a mountain range in Norway, where the highest peak is Galdhøpiggen at 2,469 meters. Pål explained that such impressive depths and rugged terrain with great environmental variation host great biodiversity, which is largely unknown.

During the first panel, speakers explored aspects of demand for seabed minerals and various questions related to science gaps and limitations. They also reflected on the role of scientists in the DSM debate and the need to address environmental justice questions. Some speakers thought it is unavoidable that DSM would go ahead, while others questioned the idea of inevitability as well as the seemingly false “need” of DSM in the future of our society. Others pointed out the need to discuss who is creating data (and what kind of data) on the geology and biodiversity of the deep-sea. For what purposes and to whose benefit?

Tina Kutti was the first speaker during the second session. She presented her work at IMR as well as IMR involvement in the opening process. Tina explained some of the functions of the deep-sea ecosystem that we all rely on: ‘A typical football sized sponge would filter several thousands of liters of water per day. Some species filter up to 99% of all particles.’ She emphasized that sponges are important as they recirculate nutrients, including carbon. Disturbing such functioning means disturbing the cycle. Therefore, worries about potential mining impacts are not only about impact on, for example, sponges, but about potential impact on their function in the ecosystem. Tina pointed out that the commissioned reports for the opening process showed lack of knowledge: ‘What we found is that the knowledge is really poor. (…) Regarding the pelagic systems – we know virtually nothing.’ According to her, no knowledge of the system means no knowledge of impacts. So, opening of the areas seems untimely and uninformed. And while Tina explained that the scientific advice from IMR is usually listened to at the government, this time the government simply ignored the scientific advice: ‘For me, this has been a shocking experience.’

During the second panel, the conversation shifted to the application of national and international law (Knut Knapskog), the regulatory framework around DSM and the role of government bodies in the process (Laura Drivdal). It included discussions of tensions that arise in the science for policy environment. In particular, the frustrations that some scientists feel when their advice is ignored (Tina Kutti). Panelists also discussed benefits and limitations of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) for biodiversity conservation in the face of DSM. Edvard Hviding pointed out that there is a competition between the UN High Seas Treaty´s push to establish MPAs and the push from states like Norway and the industry to start deep-sea mining. Speakers also delved into the topic of the precautionary principle and its different interpretations and applications in Norway, the EU, and at the UN level.

On several occasions, both speakers and members of the audience pointed out that the DSM opening process in Norway has been too fast, the authorities skipped important steps, and scientists´ advice has not been taken into account. Håkon Larsen suggested to be attentive to the language used in the process and to question if this is about “opening” (referring to the “opening process” phrase used in Norway) the Norwegian Continental Shelf or about “closing” it for private interests instead. Another relevant topic brought up during discussions was the perception of the public when it comes to the deep-sea: while misconceptions of the deep sea and the way the seabed is depicted by some voices revolve around the image of a “desert”, speakers agreed that the seabed is, in fact, thriving with life, some of which is small and thus deemed unimportant by some of the voices who promote DSM. Yet, as Tina Kutti pointed out, the complex and connected deep sea ecosystem is the reason for nature and humans to thrive.

In sum, Norway´s push for DSM is a momentous decision. As some researchers felt and voiced their concerns – a decision that is not based on science. A day after the symposium, news broke out that the Norwegian government and opposition parties have agreed to open areas for deep-sea mining exploration and exploitation. The Parliament will vote in early 2024 (a tentative date is the 4th of January, 2024). This news highlights the necessity of events similar to our symposium in bringing interdisciplinary voices together for a more critical, inclusive, and well-informed way forward.


Written by Ed and Aistė.

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