The marine waters off the coast of Washington face an overwhelming number of threats, including industrialization, pollution, warming waters, ocean acidification, and more. Now it appears that the ecosystem and wildlife there will get a reprieve from at least one potential hazard: Governor Jay Inslee (D) signed bipartisan legislation today prohibiting seabed mining for hard minerals, including precious metals, metal-rich sands, and gemstones, within 3 miles of Washington shores. This farsighted measure, introduced Jan. 12 by Democratic state Senators Kevin Van De Wege and Christine Rolfes, protects commercial and recreational fisheries, marine wildlife, and the communities and Tribal Nations that depend on them from the damage such mineral extraction would inflict. The Pew Charitable Trusts thanks the Washington Legislature and Gov. Inslee for their precautionary approach to the issue.
Seabed mining could harm sensitive habitats, for example from dredges destroying corals and sponges or sediment plumes from mining machines injuring salmon and other species. This could in turn hurt communities that depend on fishing, tourism, and cultural resources.
This is not a theoretical problem. The hard minerals found in Washington’s nearshore waters have attracted interest from mining companies for decades. The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has issued exploration and mining leases for iron- and titanium-rich black sands in several areas at the mouth of the Columbia River, including one in the 1960s for a project that spurred construction of a concentrating plant. DNR issued a similar seabed mining lease in the 1980s for an operation off the Long Beach Peninsula that also failed to get off the ground.
Washington’s coastal communities can’t count on such near misses to protect their wildlife and livelihoods indefinitely. Interest in digging up the nearshore seafloor is likely to increase as land-based sources of hard minerals become more difficult to find and mine. Washington’s proactive closure of state waters to this destructive practice spares the state the unintended consequences of a future marine gold—or titanium—rush.
There’s more work to be done to extend these protections along the West Coast. Although Oregon banned seabed mining for hard minerals in state marine waters in 1991, California has yet to implement a ban. It should join this coastal coalition in protecting more of our country’s irreplaceable nearshore marine resources for the prosperity and enjoyment of future generations.
Jennifer Browning directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ project on conserving marine life in the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean. Tom Rudolph works on Pew’s conserving marine life in the United States and Canada projects.