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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Ocean Nodule Mining

Here in New Zealand, an application has been rejected to mine the mineral nodules in our surrounding deep ocean.  I think that the powers-that-be have little sense of proportion.  Let me be clear.  I am not talking about the mining of mineral sands in shallow water.  That is another story.  I'm not saying that shallow water mineral mining is bad or good.  Just that it is another story and has to be examined separately on its merits.

These mineral nodules in the deep ocean lie on the surface of the ocean bottom.  They contain a range of very valuable minerals in concentrated form.  

Let's assume for the sake of the argument, the worst case scenario; that the hovering up of the nodules and the return of the gangue* totally smothers that area of sea bottom.

*waste bits and pieces that are not mineral nodules

No polluting chemicals are used. No excavation of the sea bottom occurs. At the most extreme, the returning waste will smother whatever is living on that area of sea bottom.  The most extreme possibility is that the area is rendered sterile.  Once the area has been mined it can't be mined again for many thousands of years.  That is how long it takes for the nodules to grow.  Here is where it gets interesting.  Let me sidestep for a moment.

Let's look at a mature forest; one that has reached it's climax state.  Competition has gone on between the various plants (trees, epiphites etc.) and the various animals and whatever survived makes up the environment.  Many species have fallen by the wayside in this competition.  Then a giant tree falls or a fire burns out a section of the forest.  Note we are not talking about logging in which massive areas are clear felled and as soon as the new growth is large enough, logged again but rather a bit of the forest that is cleared.

All sorts of pioneer species start to grow in the cleared area and the forest is greatly diversified.  Animals which do better in a pioneering forest return.  The forest is now much more diverse and for that matter much more interesting than it was.

The same thing can be expected on the ocean bottom.  Note that here we are not talking about A) the huge areas which are cleared by bottom trawling or B) the trawling again and again of the same area, never letting pioneering species  establish themselves.
It takes that long for nodules to grow.  The area gets recolonized by whatever lives in the area and whatever larvae drift by from afar and over time goes back to its original state.  If it follows the path that is observed in many ecologies from pioneer to climax state.  The over all area is enriched by a small part of it being re-set to its beginning and going through a succession toward its climactic state.

Compare that with bottom trawling which we do allow.  You scrape the bottom clean and then do it again and again and again.  The area never has a chance to recover.  If we want to do something for the bottom of the ocean we should ban bottom trawling and only allow long line methods.

We need a sense of proportion when deciding what to allow and what to forbid.  Nodule mining has to be on the extreme benign end of the spectrum and a good case can be made for it even being beneficial.  Bottom trawling is at the disastrous end.

This whole episode is similar to the stramash we had over indoor dairy farms in the MacKenzie country.  Yes, indoor dairy farms can be bad for the animals and truly horrible places.  However they can  be much better for the animals, far more ecologically friendly and, would you believe, more profitable.  The devil is in the details.

I saw a similar situation in Canada.  I met a fisheries biologist who should have known better.  He was off to break up a beaver dam in the belief that they were bad for fish stocks in that river.  Hydro dams are bad so, so must be a beaver dam.  I asked him why, before the Hudson Bay Company era, when beaver dams were in pretty well every location where  one could be built, the salmon runs were many orders of magnitude larger than they are today*.  He still went out to break up the beaver dam but hopefully it got him thinking.

Biology is complicated and intricate and the first knee jerk reaction to a situation is not often the best one.  Each situation has to be examined in detail and intelligent decisions make.  Much of our use of the planet is disastrous but not all of it.

*In about  1888, the Hudson Bay Company initiated a policy to exterminate the fur bearing animals of the Columbia Catchment to deny an economic base for America in that area.  The beavers were first to go.  Salmon runs plummeted. 

More famous is the situation with wolves.  Farley Mowat deals with this in his very amusing book Never Cry Wolf.  Canadian wildlife biologists were convinced that the wolves were decimating the caribou and put a bounty on them.

Of course we then have the example of the destruction of the fisheries of the Grand Banks under the supervision of Canadian fisheries biologists, a group of people who tend to be as green as they come.  Through a combination of corporation short sighted greed and faulty science by the best scientist of the day, the Grand Banks were trashed. 

I am a greenie through and through.  I always support the Green Party, my hero is George Monbiot and my passion is rewilding in general and beavers in particular but the greens do sometimes do go off half cocked with knee jerk reactions to things without examining the deeper implications (unexpected consequences) of their actions.  As greens we must choose our battles and carry them through to the  end and not get distracted by unimportant causes or causes in which we are  on the wrong side of the argument.

We must realize that humans are the story telling ape and get better at telling the story.  It is far more interesting than the sound bite.

The green parties of the world are our only chance in a world we seem to be determined to trash.  They are usually the only party with a vision that extends beyond a single election term.  We desperately need them to make the right choices, hold their governments feet to the fire, speak truth to power and just maybe they will succeed in pulling us out of mad rush to exterminate ourselves or at least to end the fantastic advances we have made since we have shaken loose the bonds of religious fanaticism.