Deep-Sea Data Management Gaps and Inconsistencies Leave Sensitive Ecosystems Vulnerable to Mining

New paper urges the International Seabed Authority act to better protect marine life and habitats

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Deep-Sea Data Management Gaps and Inconsistencies Leave Sensitive Ecosystems Vulnerable to Mining
Scientists use a remote-operated vehicle to study deep-sea ecosystems in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Research such as this should help policymakers govern industrial activity that might affect the seabed, but problems with a major platform designed to inform that policy could open the door to damaging activity, such as seabed mining.
NOAA Creative Commons

One of the fundamental premises of sound environmental management is that one needs good data to make good decisions. This need is particularly acute today, as the natural world faces a flurry of new and mounting threats that require ambitious, thoughtful responses to protect and restore biodiversity. And in the case of the deep sea, this concern is urgent.

That’s because the deep sea—home to unique and largely understudied ecosystems and biodiversity found nowhere else on the planet—has drawn extreme interest from mining companies eager to exploit seafloor mineral deposits. And that exploitation could start soon: The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a United Nations-affiliated body tasked with overseeing mining activities on the seabed in areas outside of national jurisdiction, is in the process of creating regulations for this activity, potentially allowing mining as soon as next year.

Although commercial deep-sea mining is still prohibited in areas beyond national jurisdiction, contractors have been allowed to begin exploratory operations to take stock of the minerals there. As part of these operations, contractors are required to collect and share environmental data with the ISA to, among other things, improve the authority’s understanding of deep-sea ecosystems and the potential impacts of deep-sea mining activities.

This environmental data is publicly available through DeepData, a platform launched in 2019 by the ISA. Beyond furthering scientific knowledge and research, the platform is intended to assist the ISA in its decision-making and help ensure that the organization meets its environmental obligations: to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment from the harmful effects of human activity and to prevent damage to marine life.

Now, a new paper—written by scientists from the Natural History Museum in London, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, and published today in Database: The Journal of Biological Databases and Curation—examines DeepData, and the information it hosts, to see if the platform is fulfilling its role.

Data and database issues

In one important finding, the authors discovered that at least 20% of the records on the platform were duplicates, with additional duplication suspected. Data duplication can affect biodiversity estimates and result in erroneous scientific conclusions, such as underestimating the number of unique species. Using these conclusions to make environmental management decisions, as would be the case for deep-seabed mining, could lead to unanticipated outcomes and cause significant harm to marine life and ecosystems—actions inconsistent with the ISA’s obligations.

Because of the lack of taxonomic work and field guides, DeepData also contains extensive inconsistencies in species names among contractors, which limits the usability of the database to examine cumulative negative impacts on species from the activities of multiple contractors. For example, contractors assigning the same name to different species could lead to an overestimate of certain species’ abundance and range, and, in turn, result in an underestimation of the threat that other species face from mining. Recording issues stem not only from a lack of taxonomic field guides to inform contractors’ identifications, but also from a lack of taxonomic expertise at the ISA.

The authors also concluded that a lot of environmental data is missing from the platform. And they noted that contractors conducted 103 exploratory missions to the deep seabed but so far have published data for only a quarter of those trips. In fact, data from six contractors have not yet been uploaded to the platform, including Nauru Ocean Resources Inc., which has conducted research trips over the past three years and has indicated that it will apply this year for the first contract to exploit deep-sea mineral deposits in international waters.  

How to improve DeepData

DeepData represents a significant achievement for the ISA, hosting about 40,000 unique records. This platform could evolve to become a tremendous resource for advancing scientific understanding of the deep sea. However, the ISA must work together with all stakeholders to secure the necessary capacity and expertise to ensure that DeepData can be used to make science-based, responsible policy decisions; for now, the platform contains too many gaps and inconsistencies to inform real-time decisions for the purposes of managing a new extractive industry. 

The paper provides several recommendations to the ISA, including revisions to the rules about data collection and submissions, an updated template with mandatory information fields, and mandatory training for contractors who will be adding data to DeepData. By following all these recommendations, the ISA could greatly improve the quality of contractor data submissions and ensure consistency across contractors.

The paper also recommends that the ISA consider providing more funding and resources to DeepData development and maintenance so that contractor environmental data is made available in a timely manner to both decision-makers and the public.

As the issues raised in the paper will influence decisions concerning the protection and preservation of sensitive marine ecosystems, it is urgent that the ISA consider the recommendations and ensure that DeepData is useful for both research and environmental management. 

Peter Edwards is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conservation science project and Chris Pickens is a principal associate with Pew’s seabed mining project.

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