Thousands of feet below the Earth's ocean surface lies the deep seabed, which is home to the rarest species and an abundant source of minerals.
Mining deep seabeds, however, is starting to become popular.
The Center for Ocean Solutions, along with other leading global institutions, has proposed a strategy to balance the commercial extraction of natural resources found on the ocean floor. In the proposal, the group aims to inform upcoming discussions by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in setting the groundwork for the protection of the deep sea environment and regulation of deep sea mining.
The deep sea plays an important role in the Earth's carbon cycle. It captures huge amounts of human-emitted carbon, greatly impacting weather and climate.
Mining can disturb such benefits that the deep sea provides to humans. It could cause a release of carbon back into the atmosphere.
Industrial, medical and pharmaceutical sectors have also benefitted from the richness of deep seabeds and made some advances in incorporating microorganisms harbored by the deep sea into their industries.
According to Craig Smith, a University of Hawaii at Manoa oceanography professor and co-author of the proposal published this week in Science, mining in deep sea areas frequently affects high diversity and fragile habitats. Mining causes physical disturbances in the deep sea, which incidentally has a very low recovery rate.
In 2013, the ISA pioneered the first regional environmental plan for the deep sea, with the help of Smith and a team of scientists. The ISA is the governing body that looks after the management of the ocean floor and its natural resources outside national jurisdictions.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) says that legally, the seabed is part of the "common heritage of mankind." The management of deep sea mining beyond national jurisdiction is the legal responsibility of the ISA, said international high seas lawyer and also co-author of the paper, Kristina Gjerde.
A total of 26 mining exploration contracts, over around 1 million square kilometers of seabed, have been granted by the ISA since 2001. In their proposal, the researchers suggest that the ISA make deep sea mining more eco friendly by taking a precautionary approach and setting up no-mining Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
According to Lisa Wedding, a Center for Ocean Solutions early career science fellow and the paper's lead author, this will be part of a regulatory framework they are considering in their July meeting.