Maila Guilhon for the Deep-sea Mining Observer
In 2007, scientists first convened a workshop to discuss conservation measures in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, leading ultimately to the establishment of the first Environmental Management Plan for mining in the Area. Now, evaluating and establishing Regional Environmental Management Plans (REMPs) are a significant component of deep-sea mining discussions. REMPs are intended to “provide the relevant organs of the ISA, as well as contractors and their sponsoring States, with a proactive area-based management tool to support informed decision making that balances resource development with conservation”. What started as a scientific initiative, the REMPs process has now been enshrined in a suite of ISA policies and measures.
With three exploration contracts for seafloor massive sulphides, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR) is considered by the ISA as a priority area for REMP development. The first of a two-step process related to developing a REMP for the MAR occurred in Évora, Portugal, last November. Based on a nomination process, the workshop united 46 experts with regional scientific knowledge on the MAR. This knowledge should underlie future discussions with policy experts in a second workshop to be held next June in St. Petersburg, Russia. The meeting was organized by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) Secretariat, in collaboration with the Atlantic REMP Project and the Government of Portugal.
The workshop’s aims were to: review, analyze and synthesize data available for the MAR; review current exploration activity within contract areas and distribution of resources; describe potential vulnerable areas to exploitation; and describe potential areas that could be reserved for Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEIs). A regional data report and a Regional Environmental Assessment report which delivered a large-scale description of the environment provided an informational baseline, however, their content was little discussed during the workshop.
Experts were divided into three groups addressing one or two particular ecosystem components: active hydrothermal vent communities, inactive vent communities/hard substrates and mid-water fauna sediments. Three approaches were proposed by the workshop hosts for discussing REMP planning: a qualitative modeling for assessing cumulative impacts, adaptive management and area-based management tools. For all approaches, scientists were asked pre-prepared questions but did not have the opportunity to bring other related management issues to discussion.
Discussion on qualitative modeling approaches drew on ad hoc experts to create diagraphs and matrices to get a first impression on which ecosystem components may be subject to multiple effects from deep-sea mining.
According to the approach provided by the workshop, adaptive management allows for environmental information to accumulate with time and for controlled mining in the absence of environmental information. Yet, as information accumulates, it may be possible to modify thresholds and other components of the adaptive management plan later. For that, groups were invited to reflect on issues such ecosystem connectivity, thresholds for plume impacts, and plume extension, but also identified knowledge gaps.
Finally, the area-based management tools discussion encompassed two groups of planning, the fine-filter scale, which addressed more punctual protection sites (e.g. Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems) and the coarse-filter scales (e.g. APEIs) as proposed by the ISA Guidance. Even though scientists were expected to deliver evidence of vulnerability for certain habitat types, the discussion did not tackle on previously proposed large scale recommendations, especially using as a background existing studies such as the framework developed by Dunn and colleagues in 2018.
All three focus areas of the Évora workshop (cumulative impact assessment, adaptive management and area-based management tools) are compatible with elements of an Ecosystem Approach, currently recognized as best governance practice for the oceans. The proposed approaches proved to be valuable exercises for assessing information such as the existing communities in the MAR, the ecological processes that occur on it and impacts arising from mining activities. However, time constraints during the group discussions, as well as the lack of preparation of a sound scientific starting point based on peer-reviewed literature for the working group discussions limited the success in achieving this key workshop objective. Time constrains were also a limitation in the review of a final report on the last day of the event, what compromised an appropriately critical review by participants.
The Ecosystem Approach is a holistic concept which seeks to balance conservation, sustainable use and fair and equitable sharing of benefits provided by the use of natural resources. Its application is foreseen for the REMP process and so, its consideration should be improved for future REMP discussions, such as through: discussing and defining site-specific principles, goals and objectives compatibles with an EA; addressing all data and knowledge available to better advance discussions, especially in the establishment of conservation measures; stressing the importance of applying a precautionary approach while recognizing data gaps; improving the participation of all stakeholders throughout REMPs discussions, since the definitions of the REMPs principles, goals and objectives to the establishment of conservation tools such as APEIs; reflecting the stakeholders participation through a clear and complete report, build and reviewed in a timely manner; and providing means and encouraging inputs by stakeholders that not attended the workshops.
Featured photo: University of Évora campus. Photo by author.