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Deep-sea mining could be causing irreparable damage to blue whales and other rare sea creatures, scientists have warned.
A peer-reviewed paper published by the University of Exeter and Greenpeace Research Laboratories points to the overlap between cetaceans (such as whales, dolphins and porpoises) and targets for deep-sea mining, particularly in the Pacific Ocean. The authors warn that research is urgently needed to assess threats to these mammals.
The research, published in Frontiers in Marine Science, that noise pollution in particular could damage sensitive, intelligent animals.
The scientists said the disturbance would be continuous for the marine mammals, like noisy construction work in a human neighborhood from which it was impossible to escape.
“Imagine if your neighborhood was suddenly disrupted by construction work that goes on 24/7, your life would change dramatically. Your mental health would be put at risk, you might change your behavior to escape it. It’s no different from whales or dolphins,” said Dr Kirsten Thompson, from the University of Exeter. The research concludes that the constant disturbance may cause ill health.
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Until now, assessments of impacts from mining have focused on seabed species, as this is the direct area being exploited. However, scientists say there is an urgent need to assess the impact on cetaceans and other large animals that could be harmed by noise pollution before commercial mining is allowed.
Dolphins and sperm whales are among the 25 cetacean species found in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) between Mexico and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, according to the paper. However, mining companies are interested in extracting metals and minerals from the seabed in this area, which is believed to be rich in valuable materials. To date 17 deep sea mining exploratory contracts have been awarded in this part of the Pacific Ocean.
Although deep sea mining companies have not yet received permission to start mining on a commercial basis, they are seeking the green light from governments for the first time in July this year. Campaigners and scientists warn that if allowed, machines could operate 24 hours a day, producing sounds at different depths that could overlap with the frequencies cetaceans use to communicate.
The seabed contains industrial metals including copper, cobalt, nickel and manganese, and rare earth elements such as yttrium, as well as substantial veins of gold, silver and platinum are also thought to exist.
Greenpeace campaigner Louisa Casson said: “Deep-mining companies are determined to ravage the oceans, despite the fact that there is little research into the impact of this industry on whales, dolphins and other species.
“Deep-sea mining could damage the oceans in ways we don’t fully understand – and at the expense of species like blue whales that have been the focus of conservation efforts for decades. Governments cannot keep their promises to protect the oceans if they allow deep-sea mining to begin.”