There are few corners of the globe left to explore, but one of them risks being lost before it is ever discovered-the cold, dark realm of the ocean floor far below the waves. This, according to marine biologist Elliot Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Redmond, Washington, is just the beginning of the destruction of the deep sea.
Norse came to this conclusion after learning that over 145 countries, including Canada, are poised, shovels and drill bits at the ready, to ratify a 1994 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) treaty that would allow them to lay claim to the ocean floor and its potential resources.
The clock is ticking on that process-from the time the treaty is ratified countries will have until 2010 to present their claims. Assuming future generations can develop the technology to harvest these resources, countries stand to gain trillions of dollars. For now, it is like money in the bank for future generations.
But before anyone can drive their stakes into the ocean floor and start building new widgets, scientists and politicians will have to determine where a country’s continental shelf ends.
Canada, for example, is in the midst of creating a claim for three-quarters of a million kilometers off the East coast and for half a million square kilometers in the Arctic.
Currently, under UN laws, coastal countries like Canada and the United States have rights to a 12-mile territorial limit and then to a 200-nautical mile economic zone. Under the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, countries are invited to submit new claims detailing what they believe their rights beyond that zone should be.
Once these claims are settled, countries will have exploitation rights to whatever resources lie within the boundaries of their territories.
But legitimate questions are being asked regarding the exploitation of the ocean bottom – namely, whether the production of resources will result in ecosystem demise.
And, as any first year environmental studies student can tell you, it will. If history is any guide, the oceans, like forests and other natural ecosystems, will be depleated by overexploitation. The result will be more climatic destruction.
“The environmental impact of going after resources on the sea floor would include biodiversity issues, ocean floor species, plant life loss, and pollution from activities such as drilling, dredging, and excavation,” said Grant Hubert, former CEO of CALMAC, a diamond processing company that has since been driven out by the high cost of mining.
CEO turned environmental activist, Hubert is working closely with Canada’s Haida people, an indigenous people who inhabit British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands and could be affected by any future sea-bottom harvesting.
“As little as 15 years ago, many scientists thought the deep sea floor was like a desert. Scientists are just now learning more about the type of habitats that survive on the ocean floor. And already the world’s economy is geared up to exploit it and that should scare us all,” said Hubert.
Regrettably, the tendency is for human exploration to result in human exploitation and ecosystem destruction. Very little has been done about air and water pollution, and many cases supporting environmental and political initiatives never see the light of day. Canada’s $10 billion Kyoto clean-up scheme for 2005 is an example.
Hubert wants Canada to focus on what is floating on the ocean surface and across Canada’s frozen north.
“There are plastic bags blowing across thousands of miles of Canada’s frozen northland,” Hubert said. “Eco-tourism is beginning to leave its impact on the Artic Oceans as more garbage from cruise ships begins to reach the shorelines. In the United States you cannot swim along much of the Louisiana or Texas coastlines because of oil sewage and other pollutions,” he added.
Surprisingly, the U.S. may be the saving grace for our oceans, at least in the short term. The U.S. is stalling on the ratification of the 1994 UNCLOS. The hesitancy is partly due to the potential for environmental degradation and the affect it would have on their economy.
The U.S. economy, like that of many coastal nations, depends on the oceans a great deal. Goods worth more than $700 billion are shipped through U.S. ports each year. More than a third of oil and gas produced around the world each year comes from offshore wells. U.S. fisheries had landings in excess of $3 billion in 2004. Submarine cables are essential to global communications and therefore much of global commerce.
Any environmental accident or degradation could have serious ramifications on the overall economy in the U.S.
Eventually UNCLOS will be ratified and countries will rush to lay their claims.
“That’s when big business will start working towards hoovering the ocean floor,” said Hubert. “Harvesting the ocean floor is like clearing a forest to raise cattle. You log more than the trees-you kill species that are linked to other species and thus you create a negative chain reaction,” he said. “From what we know of the ocean it is even more delicate and the relationship between ocean dwelling species is a very co-dependent one. Eliminate one species through overexploitation and you affect many more. We have no idea how delicate that co-dependency is.”
But when no one was looking Russia laid claim to over 1.2 million square kilometers of ocean floor-containing billions of dollars worth of natural resources like granite.
The only difficulty is that the land lies under 1,500 meters of polar ice and water and will take years of research just to get resources out. For now, the branch of the United Nations that governs the sovereignty of undersea land masses has denied the claim.
Environmental activists still have time to fight against the claims because they are expected to be hotly disputed well past 2010.
In the eighteenth century a “cannon-shot” rule was developed. Coastal states exercised dominion over their territorial seas as far as they could fire projectiles from a cannon based on the shore. Most cannons launched reached three miles, until years later when some coastal countries developed new technology that sent cannon balls 12 miles out. The United Nations “12 mile rule” stemmed from this practice.
“It isn’t about cannon shots anymore” Hubert said. “It is about who can dive the deepest and fastest and return to the surface with a handful of treasure.”