SEABED MINING AND THE LAW
At the time of writing parliament is debating the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Bill. This is intended to set up an environmental management regime similar to the provisions of the Resource Management Act for New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf, which would mean seabed mining anywhere in the EEZ could require a new kind of ‘marine consent’. The legislation is currently being amended after widespread criticism that it did not go far enough, particularly in failing to establish clear environmental principles and absolute limits on commercial activity. Whether the final Act will offer these safeguards remains to be seen: in recent speeches environment minister Amy Adams has continued to talk of ‘trade-offs’, and has stated the government has no plans to ban seabed mining. if the levels are high enough. It might also lead to the poisoning of our own seafood, as has become depressingly familiar with mercury levels in fish.
Meanwhile, increased noise on the seafloor has been implicated in the disturbance of sea mammals like the critically endangered Maui’s dolphin, altering feeding patterns and possibly leading to increased boat collisions and strandings. Environmental group WWF has called for no seabed mining to be allowed inside the Maui’s dolphins habitat as part of a its mission to help protect the last 55 individuals over the age of one believed to survive.
The increased shipping traffic to service the mining would add to the disturbance, as well as potentially increasing the risk of invasive marine species due to the discharge of ballast water as the bulk ore carriers load. Not to mention the potential for shipping accidents near our fragile coastline so dramatically highlighted by the Rena example.
The doomsday scenario is that the cumulative effects could be sufficient to severely disrupt the ocean’s food chain in large areas of our seas, threatening all kinds of ocean animals, as well as our fisheries, our marine recreation and our tourism sector. Even surfing could be affected, as the sand bars that create the breaks get shifted around.
Perhaps best placed to understand these effects is the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. But some of their scientists have been commissioned by TTR to do this research for the company, and so the institute is currently refusing to comment on the issues.
Sommerville says: “Amongst the many experts that TTR has employed are a number of NIWA scientists looking at the existing environment and developing models to predict the effects of the activities. Relevant findings will be made public as part of the resource consenting process.”
But the ultimate spanner in the works for some seabed mining companies may prove to be economic, rather than environmental. Business analysts and China watchers have noted in recent months that huge stockpiles of iron ore appear to be building up on delivery at Chinese ports, indicating that while China is still importing large amounts of ore, it doesn’t seem to be using it at anything like the same rate.
TTR is confident it can provide cost-effective competition to current suppliers, and exploit its niche market successfully. Rainger hopes they don’t get the chance. “In the absence of a cohesive plan to manage the coast in a sustainable way, our group feels that the safest position is to do nothing,” he says. “So we will oppose any plans to mine it at this stage. In another environment, with win-win proposals on the table, we may have a different position. But currently, we do not support giving away large amounts of our natural capital for a pittance so China can keep producing unwanted steel at low cost.”