Deep-sea mining debate divides island nations

Jul 1, 2024 | 2024, Blog, News, Pacific

The Pacific Islands Forum has recently seen a heated debate over the issue of deep-sea mining, highlighting a significant divide among its member countries. The discussion centers on whether to allow mining companies to extract metals from the seabed, a move proponents argue is essential for green technology and economic development, while opponents warn of potential environmental catastrophes.

Several Pacific nations, including Nauru, Kiribati, Tonga, and the Cook Islands, see deep-sea mining as a lucrative opportunity. These countries possess vast areas rich in polymetallic nodules containing cobalt, nickel, copper, and manganese, essential for electric vehicle batteries and other green technologies. The Cook Islands, under Prime Minister Mark Brown, has been particularly proactive, allowing exploration in its waters and envisioning itself as a centre of excellence for deep-sea mineral understanding.

However, other Pacific nations, such as Vanuatu and Palau, are calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until more is known about its environmental impacts. They argue that the potential for irreversible damage to marine ecosystems is too high, citing concerns over biodiversity loss and ecological disruption. Vanuatu’s Climate Minister Ralph Regenvanu has emphasized the need for comprehensive scientific research and has been vocal about Vanuatu’s stance against deep-sea mining.

The debate comes as the International Seabed Authority (ISA) prepares to meet in Jamaica to discuss regulations for deep-sea mining in international waters. The ISA faces pressure to finalize these regulations as countries like Nauru push to commence mining operations. Environmental groups and scientists have raised alarms, pointing to studies showing significant declines in marine populations even after short mining tests.

This issue also underscores a broader ethical dilemma for the Pacific Islands, which have been leading voices in global climate advocacy. Allowing deep-sea mining could undermine their moral authority in calls for climate action, presenting a complex challenge for regional unity and environmental stewardship.

The upcoming ISA meeting will be critical in determining the future of deep-sea mining in the Pacific, with member nations needing to balance economic aspirations with environmental preservation and long-term sustainability.