Unknowns linger for sea mining

Scientists struggle to predict underwater digs’ effects on sea life

CHICAGO – As commercial interest in mining metals and minerals from the seafloor intensify, scientists are treading water in attempts to understand how such digs might alter marine life.

In the fertile waters off Namibia, for example, mining companies are exploring the potential for extracting phosphate for fertilizer. In September 2013, the Namibian government, which takes pride in its country’s sustainable fisheries, placed a moratorium on such mining until scientists know whether it can be done without damaging fish stocks and habitat.

Despite years of talks on seabed mining, Bronwen Currie of Namibia’s National Marine Information and Research Center in Swakopmund said that no adequate studies on the cumulative, long-term effects of the practice exist. “Not in Namibia, not anywhere in the world,” Currie said February 16 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Namibian researchers are planning studies of water currents, seabed sediments and restoration strategies.

But Namibia is just one possible location for sea mining of minerals and metals. Besides diamond mining, no other large-scale seafloor extraction is occurring elsewhere. Scientists at the meeting called for more research and coordinated international efforts before digging starts.

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