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Source: Greenpeace New Zealand

To fight Covid-19 the World Health Organisation has told all countries: test, test, test. Around the world, doctors are testing thousands of people for the virus every day. But what you may not know is that our ability to do such tests is thanks to the mysterious depths of the ocean.

When I picture the ocean I normally imagine the rich waters at the surface or near the coast, pods of dolphins breaching the surface or schools of fish catching the sunlight. We imagine whales and turtles, all the wonderful life we’re lucky enough to see. But in its depths the ocean has hidden kingdoms of geothermal activity, that are home to strange creatures like cutthroat eels and red-lipped tubeworms. Here live marine organisms that thrive under incredible heat and pressure, in noxious gases and with zero oxygen. While these places might seem like the most inhospitable environments on the planet, scientists believe that the deep sea has some of the most biodiverse places on Earth. 

The Lost City hydrothermal field
[cc: IFE, URI-IAO, UW, Lost City Science Party; NOAA/OAR/OER; The Lost City 2005 Expedition.]

In hydrothermal vents off the coast of Italy, scientists discovered microbes containing enzymes that remained stable at extreme temperatures. This discovery allowed scientists to develop the techniques and technology we are using today to quickly diagnose the Covid-19 virus.  

But Covid-19 isn’t the first time the deep sea has helped humanity. Compounds found here have given us new treatments for cancer. Scientists believe there could be new antibiotics developed from what we find in the deep sea, which will be crucial in our fight against superbugs. These unstudied depths could also hold the key to understanding the beginnings of life on earth.

There is still so much to discover here. 

Crab, zoarcid fish, tube worms
[cc: Richard Lutz, Rutgers University, Stephen Low Productions, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.]

We know less about what lies in the depths of the ocean, than we know about the surface of the moon.  Far off our coastlines – further than our freestyle stroke, bowrider, or surf board can go – lies the unfathomable enormity and mystery of the high seas. Less than 0.0001% of it has ever been scientifically explored. Imagine what we could find there, if we were given time. 

But unfortunately, there are others who are interested in the deep sea and seabed. 

New technology means the seabed is now within the range of big mining companies too. These same areas that could have so much potential for the good of all humanity, also hold rare earth metals and minerals that could be sold for profit. And mining companies are already pushing to get their hands on them. 

The race is on for seabed mining companies to claim the new frontier, and start extracting. 

And there’s little to no protection for these places, far out of reach for most of us. International waters are under an ad-hoc patchwork of laws that leaves most of the ocean unprotected. This is essentially lawless territory, where those with the means to take from them can and will.

What is seabed mining?

Seabed miners suck up the seafloor from the depths and pump it up to a ship above, they sift out the desired materials, and discard all the unwanted matter back to the seafloor, creating sediment plumes. The science shows that not only do they decimate the areas extracted, the dumping of the unwanted matter smothers the surrounding seafloor and blocks the light filtering from above. This has enormous consequences for all marine life and for fisheries. 

The ocean is a complex ecological system, providing the oxygen that we breathe, regulating our climate and feeding over a billion people worldwide. Mass disruption of its depths is a risk for all life on Earth, not just that in the immediate vicinity. The biodiversity down there may not always be beautiful, but it is still worthy of our protection. 

If we have learned anything from our industrial history, it’s that when we interfere with nature, we reap the consequences. Around the world we are dealing with the fallout of this take, take, take mentality, one that has been the residing thought process of the past century. We are learning now how very wrong we were. 

As we scramble to respond to emergencies of our own creation, be they the climate crisis or the associated biodiversity breakdown, it is beyond belief that we would open Pandora’s box to seabed mining and usher in a new era of destruction. This is especially absurd considering how these ocean ecosystems have already been shown to benefit humanity. 

Despite there being no regulation or framework for environmental protection, seabed mining companies already have early exploration permits in international waters. Right now, companies are attempting to get permits to seabed mine in New Zealand waters. Elsewhere, huge multinationals are pressuring other nations to give over access to their seas, all to line their pockets. 

How can we protect the oceans?

Around the world calls are growing for a halt on seabed mining, with everyone from concerned concerned environmental groups to pacific nations like Vanuatu and Fiji resisting this new and dangerous industry. Papua New Guinea, an early issuer of licenses to seabed mine, is now backtracking, and calling for a moratorium on the practice. In the last few days the U.K has also made commitments to wait for more science before proceeding with mining, with prominent environmentalist David Attenborough also warning against rushing in.

Attenborough said: “The rush to mine this pristine and unexplored environment risks creating terrible impacts that cannot be reversed. We need to be guided by science when faced with decisions of such great environmental consequence.” 

In times of crisis, we must all decide which path we want to take. Do we want to sanction more destruction of biodiversity, a new generation of extractive industry, and more profit at any cost? Or will we take a stand to protect nature, and preserve these places for the common good of planet Earth and of humanity?

We are living through uncertain times. Covid-19 has thrown millions of lives into chaos. But we know from experience that even through these times some companies will continue their march towards destroying our Earth and our oceans. For all our sakes, I truly hope that in these trying times, we do not lose sight of the fact that protecting these vital ecosystems is inextricable from protecting the health of humans and all life on Earth.  

What you can do at home

From the very beginning, Greenpeace has campaigned to protect our oceans. The most recent campaign focus has been on protecting international waters, or the ‘High Seas,’ which saw us travel from Pole to Pole over the last year. International waters make up the vast majority of the global oceans, but they face a multitude of threats. From deep sea mining to destructive fishing, climate crisis to pollution, the oceans are under threat like never before. And as discussed above, the current approach for protecting them is so fragmented, it simply isn’t working. Time is running out to make sure we do not lose the greatest common good we have.

We’ve been asking people to join one of our most ambitious conservation efforts ever – protecting a third of the world’s oceans by 2030. If you have a moment, I urge you to add your name to the millions who want to see this made a reality.

If you’ve already signed, please consider sharing it with friends and family.

As we all endeavor to hold our loved ones close and protect them during these times of uncertainty, we must not forget that protecting nature is paramount to our collective health.

GPNZ is fighting a legal battle to stop a seabed mine off the coast of Taranaki in New Zealand. Support us to do this – donate now.

MIL OSI