A U.K. public opinion poll released on Thursday, March 17, 2022 – the first to measure the country’s attitudes towards deep-sea mining – revealed strong support for a moratorium on the extraction of minerals from the deep sea, with some 73% of respondents saying they would support a stop to the industry, which is not yet in operation but could launch in the next few years.
At the same time, the poll, conducted by ICM Unlimited, revealed that general knowledge about the nascent sector is limited. While half of the 2,072 people surveyed are aware of deep-sea mining to some degree (50%), only one in seven, or 14%, is “definitely” aware. Furthermore, less than half of the respondents were aware that low-carbon technologies require minerals that must be mined or recycled (45%).
However, after respondents were informed of the potential negative impacts of deep-sea mining, only one in 13, or 8%, said we should start a deep-sea mining industry to meet the projected increase in demand for minerals.
The poll comes as companies worldwide – including a U.K.-based company sponsored by the U.K. government – are seeking to open up international waters to deep-sea extraction. Mining companies argue that deep-sea mining activity would supply the surging electronic vehicle (EV) industry and other carbon-friendly technologies with the minerals and metals – found in nodules on the ocean floor – they need for battery power. These minerals are also used to produce mobile phones and solar panels.
In March (March 21-April 1), the International Seabed Authority (ISA) – the body that will decide about ocean mining in international waters – is meeting to negotiate a set of regulations for mining the deep seabed in international waters (the “high seas”). At the last ISA meeting in December, several countries expressed concerns about rushing through these increasingly-contested regulations. Many more organizations, scientists and companies around the world are calling for a ban or pause of the process. The U.K. government, however, urged other ISA member countries to expedite the negotiations and agree to adopt mining regulations by July 2023.
Experts assert that the controversial push for deep-sea mining comes at a time when innovations in battery chemistry, technology and recycling could reduce the industry’s need for these minerals and potentially eliminate the need to mine the oceans altogether. Most respondents supported the use of new technology (54%) and increased recycling (54%) as the best ways to tackle increasing mineral demand.
The U.K. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has supported companies seeking exploration of the Pacific seafloor for mineral-rich polymetallic nodules. The poll indicates that most U.K. respondents are opposed to this activity overall. Only 18% said the government should support the development of a U.K. deep-sea mining industry, with some 70% reporting that there should be a public consultation before the U.K. government supports a company’s application for a license to begin mining.
The concerns of the U.K. public align with a recent report from the House of Lords on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It called for more evidence from the U.K. government on the “risks and benefits of deep seabed mining” and emphasized the need for a “cautious position” to “ensure protection of the marine environment.”
According to the poll, the effects of deep-sea mining that people in the U.K. would be most concerned about are direct environmental impacts – the majority of respondents (66%) cited concerns about extinction of species, destruction of habitats and pollution of surrounding waters. Many unique species, such as the dumbo octopus, sea angels and cold-water corals, rely on the deep sea for their survival. About one in four, or 27% and 22% respectively, place extinction of species and destruction of habitats as their top concern. Other concerns include contamination of seafood, industrial accidents resulting in the loss of human life and insufficient monitoring of deep-sea mining in remote areas.
Additionally, most respondents, about 65%, said they would be less likely to buy tuna or other seafood that had come from a deep-sea mining region when they learned that deep-sea mining activities could contaminate fish.
When it comes to purchasing an electric vehicle, more than half of respondents, or 55%, said they would prefer to buy an electric car containing minerals that had not been mined from the deep sea. This result bodes well for the growing group of electric vehicle manufacturers, including BMW, Renault, Volkswagen and Volvo, that have pledged to run their cars on batteries free of ocean minerals.
Furthermore, some Tesla cars, including the most popular EV model sold in the U.K., run on lithium iron phosphate batteries, which use far less of the minerals targeted by deep-sea mining. Volkswagen and Renault also produce popular U.K. EV models. These polling results follow a recently released study by 30 researchers from the U.K. and around the world that lays out how little we know about the potentially damaging impacts of deep-sea mining. The study warns of extensive gaps in scientific knowledge about deep-sea life and oceanographic, biological, and ecological linkages between deep-ocean habitats and the rest of the ocean and planet.
The study findings echo a recent statement by over 600 global ocean scientists and experts from 44 countries – including 70 from the U.K. – calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. Additionally, at the recent International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress, 81 countries and government agencies voted for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. These experts are calling for more time to close this knowledge gap.
Pippa Howard, Director of Corporate Sustainability, Fauna & Flora International, said: “Deep-sea mining is an enormously risky industry in the making. Those pushing for it have done so largely behind closed doors, with minimal communication with the public about their plans to tear up the deep seabed, and what that might mean for the health of the ocean, our climate and our food chains.
“This poll makes clear that people in the U.K. will not stand for such risk-taking. When made aware of what’s at stake, most people think it makes sense to wait, to get the scientific data in place on the potential impacts of deep-sea mining – and only then to decide about whether this is an industry that should be allowed to develop. To achieve that, we need an international moratorium now.”
Dan Crockett, Development Director, Blue Marine Foundation: “Motion 69 at the IUCN World Conservation Congress last year overwhelmingly rejected deep-sea mining as a concept, with a huge majority of governments, government agencies and civil society voting in favour of a moratorium. The ISA secretariat and indeed our own U.K. government departments need to stop buying the false narratives pushed by the nascent industry and recognise this very clear mandate from the world.”
Sian Owen, Director, Deep Sea Conservation Coalition: “This survey makes clear that British people understand that a healthy ocean is critical for a healthy planet and our own survival. Today their voices join those of many others around the world saying “no” to opening one of the world’s last wildernesses to mining, which would cause irreversible harm. It’s simply not worth the risk.”
Dr. Douglas McCauley, Director, Benioff Ocean Initiative: “Scientists are deeply concerned about the potential significant and long-lasting impacts to the marine environment if deep-sea mining does go ahead. The results of this poll show that the public is still learning about deep-sea mining and its potential impacts on everything from unique deep-sea octopuses to the seafood we feed to our families.
“Given the potentially permanent damage that seabed mining could cause in our oceans, it is critical that the public be allowed to engage in consultations about ocean mining – before not after that damage is inflicted. There is an urgent need for more stakeholder engagement and more research on ocean mining. This is the absolute wrong time for policymakers to be quietly forcing a rushed start to this risky new industry.”
Dr. Diva Amon, Marine Biologist and Director and Founder of SpeSeas: “Besides being a vast reservoir of biodiversity, the deep ocean provides us with benefits ranging from carbon sequestration to medicine, to food chains that sustain billions of people. But climate change, habitat destruction and overfishing are already stressing the ocean, and seabed mining would jeopardise ocean health even more.
“If we continue to proceed on this path blindly, we will lose parts of our ocean before we truly know them and the benefits they offer. We can’t effectively manage and protect what we don’t know, understand and value.”