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Canada declares moratorium on deep-sea mining at global ocean conservation summit

More research needs to be done on potential impacts, says natural resources minister
Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced a moratorium on deep-sea mining at IMPAC5, a global ocean conservation summit. (Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter)

By Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Canada has announced a moratorium on deep-sea mining in both territorial and international waters on the last day of a global ocean conservation summit.

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray and Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault made statements Thursday confirming Canada’s position on seabed mining at the IMPAC5 leadership forum in Vancouver.

There isn’t sufficient science and no existing domestic or international legal framework that would allow for mining to take place in an environmentally sustainable manner, Wilkinson told Canada’s National Observer.

“It is effectively a moratorium until we actually know what we need to know to inform decisions about seabed mining,” Wilkinson said.

“Canada’s position with respect to the areas that we have jurisdiction over — and Canada’s position with respect to the international issue — are exactly the same,” he added.

Making the declaration, Canada has joined close to a dozen nations calling for a moratorium or pause on mining the deep sea that includes Germany, Spain, Chile, New Zealand and a number of small island nations, such as Fiji and Palau, expected to suffer most from any environmental harms if proposed mining in the Pacific gets underway.

However, Canada stopped short of calling for an outright ban on deep-sea mining in its own waters or the high seas as France has done.

Deep-sea mining should only advance if conservation measures are in place to protect the ocean ecosystem in tandem with a rigorous regulatory structure and science-based management and inspections, the ministers said.

It’s not a foregone conclusion that Canada and the international community will agree to deep-sea mining even if and when regulatory conditions are developed, Guilbeault added.

“The first thing is the science and better understanding our ocean system,” he said.

“That will be what Canada, what we, will be focusing on in the coming months and years.”

The issue of deep-sea mining was contentious at IMPAC5, with international scientists, coastal communities and environmental groups calling on Canada to support a ban.

Many ocean experts and discussions at the ocean conference emphasized the need for more scientific understanding of the deep sea, which hosts a wealth of marine life and habitat that could be harmed or destroyed by the impacts of mining.

The ocean is the largest ecosystem on Earth, covering 70 per cent of the planet, but only five per cent of that area has been explored and mapped by humans. It is also the planet’s greatest carbon sink and ally in the fight against climate change, IMPAC5 participants stressed. Mining would only further stress the marine environment already struggling with a suite of human-caused problems, such as warming waters, increased acidification and pollution.

Conservation groups at IMPAC5 celebrated Canada’s decision to curb an imminent and emerging threat to the ocean’s future, particularly in the Pacific where proposed mining projects could begin this summer.

“With its strong commitment to the precautionary approach and concern for the health of the marine environment, Canada’s statement aligns with what scientists have been saying for years: we shouldn’t rush into mining some of the planet’s last intact — and least understood — ecosystems,” said Susanna Fuller, vice-president of operations and projects for Oceans North.

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The deep sea is home to an astonishing abundance of marine life and plays a vital role in regulating the cycle of nutrients and carbon in the ocean, she said.

“It’s not fully known what the consequences of deep-sea mining at an industrial scale would be, but many scientists say they would be severe and far-ranging.”

International ocean conservation groups are urging Canada to be even more ambitious than simply calling for a moratorium.

Deep-sea mining critics are nervous about a rapid push by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) — responsible for regulating the industry in the high sea — to develop a mining regulatory framework by July.

If a mining code is agreed upon and adopted at the international forum, it could greenlight a global race to secure metals at the expense of the seabed, said Sofia Tsenikli, mining campaign lead with the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC).

It might also allow Canadian mining outfit The Metals Company and its Swiss operating partner and shareholder AllSeas to launch a massive project in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a section of ocean floor as wide as the United States that spans 4.5 million square kilometres of the Pacific between Mexico and Hawaii.

At the upcoming ISA meetings, Canada needs to vote against developing regulations or any other plans that would see commercial-scale deep-sea mining begin, DSCC said.

“[These meetings] provide a critical window of opportunity for Canada to join a growing group of ocean leaders and put the brakes on deep-sea mining and stop a destructive industry before it even begins,” Tsenikli said.

“Canada has made ambitious commitments this week [at IMPAC5] on ocean conservation. This declaration needs to translate into action at the ISA and a call for a moratorium, an official, global pause.”

Canada will work to protect the marine environment now and into the future, Wilkinson said.

The federal government supports responsible management of shared global resources, paired with strong environmental, social and governance principles that fight climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, the ministers’ statements said.

“The oceans, as everybody here knows, is one of our planet’s greatest resources and critical to all life on the planet,” Wilkinson said.

Strong standards and co-operation with international partners, provinces and territories, Indigenous people and others will better protect their future, he said.

“We’ll support a vibrant marine environment and a sustainable blue economy for generations to come.”

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