Tag Archives: Ocean Conference

Protecting the Coral Sea-the Cradle to the Great Barrier Reef

By Adele Pedder

The world’s oceans are facing increasing challenges, with threats posed by climate change, pollution and overfishing. In the light of these challenges it is becoming increasingly important to set aside large areas of our ocean to allow ecosystems to operate in their natural state. Globally, more and more nations are relying on marine protected areas and reserves to give their regions of our blue planet a fighting chance.

Australia has a lot at stake as steward of the world’s third-largest marine territory and some of the most diverse marine life on Earth. Our continent rises from the junction of three major oceans and contains tropical, temperate and subantarctic ecosystems, with much of our marine life found nowhere else. Historically, Australia has led the way in global marine conservation. In the 1980s, we created the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and in 2012, we announced what would have become the world’s largest representative national network of marine parks and sanctuaries. This network boasted 60 large marine parks around the nation’s coastline, with the primary objective being biodiversity conservation.

The declaration of the formation of the marine reserve network was overwhelmingly endorsed by the Australian public. It followed 15 years of advocacy, scientific research and consultation, and more than a decade of work by consecutive Governments from both major parties. The marine reserve system went through six rounds of public consultations, with over three quarters of a million people providing submissions—95 per cent in favour of greater protection for Australian maritime zones.

The network includes about a third of Australian offshore Commonwealth waters, with 14 per cent designated as highly protected sanctuary zones. While still falling short of the World Parks Congress recommendation of protecting 20-30 per cent of marine and coastal areas in sanctuary zones, it was a significant increase from the previous 4 per cent.

Despite this progress, Australian marine reserves were suspended from operation by a newly instated Government that ordered a review within its first 100 days of office.1 Leading research institutions, including the Australian Marine Science Association and The Ecology Centre at the University of Queensland, pointed to the lack of research behind the Government’s decision to suspend the marine reserve network,2 but those arguments fell on deaf ears.

The largest and most important park in the reserve system—the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve—lies adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. It is also the reserve that is most likely to be severely affected by the review.


The Coral Sea is located north-east of Australia’s Queensland coast. It is bounded on the west by the Great Barrier Reef and on the north by the Torres Strait Protected Zone. These ocean environments are inextricably linked and should be managed as a broad ecosystem, particularly in the light of the parlous state of the Great Barrier Reef, which is under significant pressure and has lost half of its coral cover in the last 27 years. In the last 13 months it has endured two consecutive severe bleaching events and a category four cyclone. At the time of writing, the results of these latest impacts had not yet been quantified.

Cradling the Great Barrier Reef, the Coral Sea is a bio­diversity hotspot containing 49 different habitats supporting over 300 threatened species. It is globally recognized for its diversity of large predators, such as sharks, tunas, marlin, swordfish and sailfish, and is one of the last places on Earth where populations have not yet been severely depleted. The Coral Sea provides habitat for many endangered species, including hawksbill and green turtles. It is home to 28 species of whales and dolphins and 27 species of seabirds.


The Coral Sea is a critical link between the western Pacific and the Great Barrier Reef, and further on to the Coral Triangle of South-East Asia. It provides many of the necessary stepping stones that enable genetic exchanges between species via ocean currents, which transport spores, larvae and migratory animals. The Coral Sea also plays an important role in replenishing the Great Barrier Reef with new life. It receives oceanic currents flowing west from Vanuatu that restore the biological communities growing on its emergent reefs.


The Coral Sea is one of the very few places in the world where relatively intact tropical marine life can be protected on a large scale. In fact, Dr. Daniela Ceccarelli, a marine ecology consultant at the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, found that the Coral Sea sanctuary zones represent “probably the only tropical pelagic environment not markedly impacted by fishing where an area of very large scale can be established and effectively managed.”3 The marine reserve as originally proposed is home to the largest sanctuary zone in Australia and is one of the few places in the world where such a large marine sanctuary can be established to protect a relatively healthy tropical marine environment. This makes the Coral Sea’s conservation values globally significant.

The Marion Plateau is one of the three key ecological features of the Coral Sea.5 The sanctuary zone at Marion Reef increases protection for the reefs, cays and herbivorous fish of the Plateau. Significantly, the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve is also the only place in Australia where tropical seamount environments are protected.

The Government’s own risk assessment process found eight commercial fishing practices to be incompatible with the conservation values of the Coral Sea.6 Yet the review’s new draft management plan proposes to expose the Reserve to these intensive fishing practices. Furthermore, major concerns exist within the scientific community about the new draft management plan’s low level of protection for the unique habitats of the Coral Sea, particularly its deep water troughs, open water (pelagic) ecosystems and unique coral reefs.

The marine reserve network sought to achieve comprehensive and representative coverage of major ecological systems in Australia. Rather than overreaching, many scientists have argued that the proportion in areas of sanctuary zones is insufficient to achieve biodiversity conservation.8 In fact, for the Coral Sea specifically, a scientific consensus statement facilitated by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and endorsed by the Australian Marine Sciences Association, as well as over 300 scientists, raised concerns over the inadequate protection for key habitats in the southern and western parts of the Coral Sea.9 The recent review process seeks to significantly reduce what the scientific community has already identified as inadequate or low-level protections.


The Centre for Conservation Geography found that the net social and economic value of the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve to the Australian community amounts to $1.2 billion.10 In addition, they found that the Reserve is predicted to generate a net increase of 100 jobs, with positive impacts on nature-based tourism and recreational fishing outweighing any possible negative impacts on commercial fishing by at least $5 million per annum. The Reserve has been extremely successful at minimizing the displacement of commercial fishing activities with the maximum potential negative impact estimated to be $4.2 million.11 The creation of the Reserve is predicted to expand the tourism industry by 150 per cent, which is a gain in direct sales of $9 million

Up to a third of the Reserve was set up to become the exclusive site of recreational and charter fishing, creating what is effectively the largest recreational fishing zone in Australian history. The original zoning proposed in 2012 achieved a good balance between high-level sanctuary zone protection and commercial use. The review puts this very much at risk, however, with big cuts in protection being considered.


The review process has released its first report outlining proposed cut backs to the Australian network of marine sanctuaries, with the Coral Sea as its centrepiece and the sanctuary facing the greatest threats. A convincing 50,000 submissions were received, calling on the Government of Australia to make no cuts and instead reinstate the full system of marine reserves and sanctuaries. Significantly, over 5,000 of those submissions were made by recreational fishers. At the time of writing, many Australian scientists, marine stakeholders and members of the ocean-loving community are working hard to prevent the gutting of the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve. The Australian Marine Conservation Society, along with the Save Our Marine Life alliance of 25 conservation groups, believes that the current review of marine reserves should be approached as an opportunity to address weaknesses in the previous plan and to increase protection for Australia’s oceans, not reduce it. This is necessary if Australia is to move towards fulfilling its international commitments for biodiversity protection.

The Government is expected to release the redrafted management plans for the suspended marine reserves for a final round of public consultation in late May 2017.

More information can be found in a report commissioned by the Save Our Marine Life alliance entitled The Coral Sea Marine Reserve: Centre for Conservation Geography Report to the Australian Government’s Marine Reserves Review. Available at: http://conservationgeography.org/content/ccg-coral-sea-report-australias-commonwealth-marine-reserves-review.


1 For further information about the independent Commonwealth Marine Reserves Review, see the website of the Government of Australia at http://www.environment.gov.au/marinereservesreview/home.
2 Judith Friedlander, “Marine reserves ditched despite tide of research”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 September 2014. Available from http://www.smh.com.au/environment/marine-reserves-ditched-despite-tide-of-research-20140825-1083js.html.
3 Daniela M. Ceccarelli, “Australia’s Coral Sea: a biophysical profile”, Report ([Canberra], Pew Environment Group Protect Our Coral Sea,
2011), p. 3. Available from http://www.hsi.org.au/editor/assets/marine_conservation/082011%20Australias%20Coral%20Sea_%20A%20Biophysical%20Profile%20by%20marine%20ecologist%20Dr%20%20Daniela%20Ceccarelli.pdf.
4 Daniel Beaver and others, “The Coral Sea Marine Reserve: Centre for Conservation Geography Report to the Australian Government’s Marine Reserves Review”, Version 1.0 ([Canberra], Centre for Conservation Geography, 2015), p.7. Available from http://conservationgeography.org/sites/default/files/CoralSeaMarineReserve_CCGReport_31_03_2015.pdf.
5 Commonwealth of Australia, 2012. Key Ecological Features. http://www.environment.gov.au/metadataexplorer/full_metadata.jsp?docld={093A2086-7DE3-41A7-B407-SBCCA7F400AS}&Ioggedln=false.
6 Beaver and others, Op. cit., p.4.
7 Ibid.
8 Nic Bax and Ian Cresswell, “Marine reserves not about closing fisheries, but about preserving ocean health”, The Conversation, 27 August 2012. Available from http://theconversation.com/marine-reserves-not-about-closing-fisheries-but-about-preserving-ocean-health-8936.
9 Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence: Coral Reef Studies, Coral Sea Marine Reserve Proposal, Submission to the Draft Commonwealth Marine Reserve Proposal for the Coral Sea (2012). Cited in Beaver and others, p. 27.
10 Beaver and others, Op. cit., p. 4.
11 Commonwealth of Australia, Completing the Commonwealth Marine Reserves Network: Regulatory impact statement (Canberra, ACT, Australia, Marine Division, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, 2012), p. 50. Available from http://ris.pmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/posts/2012/06/03-Completing-the-Commonwealth-Marine-Reserves-Network-RIS1.pdf. Cited in Beaver and others, Op. cit.,p. 15.
12 Commonwealth of Australia, A Guide to the Integrated Marine and Coastal Regionalisation of Australia, IMCRA Version 4.0. (Canberra, Australia, Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006). Available from https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/2660e2d2-7623-459d-bcab-1110265d2c86/files/imcra4.pdf. Cited in Beaver and others, Op. cit.,p.16.

Author bio:
Adele Pedder is Marine Campaign Manager at the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

The International Seabed Authority and Deep Seabed Mining

By Michael Lodge

The deep ocean below 200 metres is the largest habitat for life on Earth and the most difficult to access. The sea floor, just like the terrestrial environment, is made up of mountain ranges, plateaus, volcanic peaks, canyons and vast abyssal plains. It contains most of the same minerals that we find on land, often in enriched forms, as well as minerals that are unique to the deep ocean, such as ferromanganese crusts and polymetallic nodules.

The existence of mineral deposits in the deepest parts of the ocean has been known since the 1860s. In Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Captain Nemo announced that “in the depths of the ocean, there are mines of zinc, iron, silver and gold that would be quite easy to exploit”, predicting that the abundance of marine resources could satisfy human need. Although he was right about the abundance of the resources, he was most certainly wrong about how easy it would be to exploit them.

Serious attention was focused on deep seabed minerals in the 1960s, when American geologist John L. Mero published a book entitled The Mineral Resources of the Sea, in which he made the case that the seabed could become a major source of supply for meeting the world’s mineral needs. This in turn led Ambassador Arvid Pardo of Malta to deliver a speech to the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, in which he called for the resources of the deep seabed to be designated as the “common heritage of mankind” and urged the creation of a system of international regulation to prevent technologically advanced countries from colonizing the seabed and monopolizing these resources to the detriment of developing States.

Ambassador Pardo’s grand vision captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s and was to become a major driving factor in United Nations efforts to elaborate a comprehensive regime for ocean governance between 1967 and 1982. In 1970, the General Assembly, in resolution 2749 (XXV), adopted the Declaration of Principles Governing the Sea-Bed and the Ocean Floor, and the Subsoil Thereof: beyond the Limits of National Jurisdiction, which reserved the seabed exclusively for peaceful uses. Following Pardo’s advice, the Assembly also declared the mineral resources of the seabed as the “common heritage of mankind”, to be developed for the benefit of mankind as a whole through international machinery to be established for that purpose.

After the initial euphoria of the 1970s, a collapse in world metal prices, combined with relatively easy access to minerals in the developing world, dampened interest in seabed mining.

It would take another 24 years for the machinery proposed by the General Assembly to come into existence in the form of the International Seabed Authority, an autonomous organization within the United Nations common system, with headquarters located in Kingston, Jamaica. All States parties to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) are members of the Authority, amounting to 168 members, including the European Union. The Authority is one of the three international institutions established by UNCLOS; the other two are the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Its primary function is to regulate exploration for and exploitation of deep seabed minerals found in ‘the Area’, which is defined by the Convention as the seabed and subsoil beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, that is, beyond the outer limits of the continental shelf. The Area comprises just over 50 per cent of the entire seabed on Earth.

Today, after decades ‘on hold’, there is renewed interest from the private sector and Governments alike in the potential for commercial exploitation of marine minerals. The principal drivers of this new interest are a combination of technological advances in marine mining and processing, and an increase in the long-term demand for minerals, which is attributable to globalization and industrialization in the developing world. Terrestrial mineral deposits are coming under increasing pressure because of the need to serve a continuously growing global population, an expanding middle class that is driving urbanization and the need for renewable, low-carbon infrastructure. Easily mined, high-grade ore deposits are quickly declining. Although new resources are likely to exist in the deep subsurface or in remote locations, mining these terrestrial deposits will require large amounts of energy and have significant social and environmental consequences. Increased recycling of metals will provide some relief but will never be sufficient to satisfy the anticipated long-term growth in demand. Deep seabed minerals are therefore increasingly likely to make an important contribution to sustainable development, particularly for those countries that lack secure sources of supply on land, as well as small island developing States that lack opportunities for economic development.

Commercial interest is currently focused on three types of marine mineral deposits. Polymetallic nodules occur throughout the ocean and are found lying on the sea floor in the abyssal plains, often partially buried in fine grain sediments. Nodules contain a wide variety of metals, including manganese, iron, copper, nickel, cobalt, lead and zinc, with important but minor concentrations of molybdenum, lithium, titanium, and niobium, among others. The most studied area of commercial interest is the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the eastern Pacific, at water depths between 3,500 and 5,500 metres. This single deposit contains more nickel, manganese and cobalt than all terrestrial resources combined. Other areas of potential interest are the Central Indian Ocean basin and the exclusive economic zones of the Cook Islands, Kiribati and French Polynesia.

Polymetallic sulphides (sometimes called sea floor massive sulphides or SMS) are rich in copper, iron, zinc, silver and gold. Deposits are found at tectonic plate boundaries along the mid-ocean ridges, back-arc ridges and active volcanic arcs, typically at water depths of around 2,000 metres for mid-ocean ridges. These deposits formed over thousands of years through hydrothermal activity, when metals precipitated from water discharged from the Earth’s crust through hot springs at temperatures of up to 400’C. Because of the black plumes formed by the activity, these hydrothermal vents are often referred to as ‘black smokers’. Active hydro­thermal vents form unique ecosystems. Chemosynthetic bacteria, which use hydrogen sulphide as their energy source, form the basis of the vent food web, which is comprised of a variety of giant tube worms, crustaceans, molluscs and other species. Many vent species are considered endemic to vent sites, and hydrothermal vent habitats are thus considered to hold intrinsic scientific value.

Cobalt crusts accumulate at water depths of between 400 and 7,000 metres on the flanks and tops of seamounts. They are formed through the precipitation of minerals from seawater and contain iron, manganese, nickel, cobalt, copper and various rare metals, including rare earth elements. Globally, it is estimated that there may be as many as 100,000 seamounts higher than 1,000 metres, although relatively few of these will he found suitable for cobalt crust extraction. The most prospective area for cobalt crusts is located in the Magellan Seamounts in the Pacific Ocean, east of Japan and the Mariana Islands.

Under UNCLOS, exploration for and exploitation of seabed minerals in the Area may only be carried out under a contract with the International Seabed Authority and subject to its rules, regulations and procedures. Contracts may be issued to both public and private mining enterprises, provided they are sponsored by a State party to UNCLOS and meet certain standards of technological and financial capacity. Ultimately, the economic advantages of deep seabed mining, most likely in the form of royalties paid to the Authority, are to be shared for the “benefit of mankind as a whole”, with particular emphasis on the developing countries that lack the technology and capital to carry out seabed mining for themselves.

The Authority has developed regulations, including provisions relating to environmental protection, to govern exploration. It has so far approved 28 exploration contracts in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans, covering more than 1.3 million square kilometres of ocean floor. In January 2017, Poland applied for the twenty-ninth exploration contract. Such contracts are held by States parties to UNCLOS and by companies sponsored by those parties. National Government participants include those from China, France, Germany, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation and the lnteroceanmetal Joint Organization (a consortium of Bulgaria, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Poland, the Russian Federation and Slovakia). Contracts have also been granted to an increasing cohort of private entities sponsored by both developed and developing States parties, including small island developing States such as the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Singapore and Tonga.

The Authority is now focused on the development of a regulatory regime for exploitation of these resources. This involves consideration of a range of technological, financial and environmental issues. Although there will be technological variations in the mining equipment required for each type of mineral deposit, the basic concept and methodology for recovery is similar. In each case, a collector vehicle will make contact with the sea floor and collect the mineral deposits. In the case of SMS and cobalt crusts, this will require cutting or breaking the mineral deposits from the substrate. Nodules may be harvested directly from the seabed. In all cases, the mined materials, combined with seawater, will be brought to the surface by a riser system and transported to a surface support vessel. There the ore will be separated from the seawater and transported to processing plants on land.

Perhaps the primary concern for the Authority as a regulator is how to balance the societal benefits of deep seabed mining, including access to essential minerals, the non­displacement of communities) extensive deep sea research and technological development, against the need to protect the marine environment. Of course, the fact that no part of the Area may be exploited without permission from the Authority ensures that the environmental impacts of deep seabed mining will be monitored and controlled by an international body. This in itself reflects a precautionary approach to seabed development. It is evident, nevertheless, that mining will impact the marine environment to some extent, especially in the immediate vicinity of mining operations. Impacts may include the crushing of living organisms, the removal of substrate habitat and the creation of sediment plumes. There is also the possibility of other environmental damage through malfunctions in the riser and transportation system, hydraulic leaks, and noise and light pollution. Much of the Authority’s work to date has focused on requiring exploration contractors to collect baseline data, especially on the composition and distribution of deep sea species, and conduct scientific research to better understand the potential long-term impacts of deep sea mining.

The adoption of UNCLOS in 1982 was one of the greatest achievements of the United Nations. One of the Convention’s most important contributions is that it placed more than 50 per cent of the seabed under international jurisdiction, beyond the reach of any single State. Although it has taken more than 50 years of multilateral effort to begin to realize the promise of the “common heritage of mankind” envisioned by Ambassador Pardo and enshrined in UNCLOS, the prospects for sustainable exploitation of seabed mineral resources are better now than at almost any other time in the last 30 years. If managed effectively, in accordance with the rule of law as set out in the Convention, deep sea mining has the potential to contribute to the realization of Sustainable Development Goal 14, particularly for landlocked and geographically disadvantaged States, and small island developing States that are heavily reliant on the ocean and its resources for economic development.


Author bio: Michael Lodge is Secretary-General of the International Seabed Authority.