Spotlight on Duke in Washington: The Deep Sea

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions recently hosted their first Washington Forum on emerging issues in deep-sea policy. The event brought a panel of experts to the Duke in Washington office to discuss everything from the history behind the United States’ involvement in deep sea mineral exploration to international governance challenges involving the ocean.

Below, Linwood Pendleton, director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute, talks about the gathering.

DiW: For those that are unaware, what are the major emerging issues in deep sea governance?

LP: Interest in exploiting deep sea resources is growing and conservation organizations are trying to keep up. New technologies have opened up the deep sea bed to mining. The first deep sea mine will  likely go into production off the coast of Papua New Guinea within the next few years. Such a mine would offer a new source for copper, manganese, gold, and rare earth minerals, which are necessary for modern devices including smart phones and laptops.

In addition to mining, we see increased industrial trawling for fish in the deep sea, and more and more deep sea oil and gas extraction. At the present, our limited knowledge of deep sea ecosystems makes it difficult to weigh the potential biological and environmental impacts of industrial activity there. We need to figure out how to take advantage of the non-living resources of the deep in a way that ensures environmental costs are minimized and never greater than the benefits of these activities.

DiW: Oceans play a significant role in the nation’s economy. What do we really stand to lose by not looking for ways to solve these issues?

LP: Ocean ecosystems contribute directly to the economy through the provision of fish, recreational opportunities, carbon sequestration, and oxygen production—just to name a few of the benefits we get from the living sea. The deep sea bed is an integral part of ocean ecosystems. Activities that degrade the deep sea potentially put these ecosystem services at risk.

DiW: Can you tell us about the top two theme or outcomes to come out of your recent Washington Forum?

LP: I think many in the audience were surprised at how much activity is happening within the deep sea areas of the United States Exclusive Economic Zone. Marine Sanctuaries now protect extremely deep parts of the ocean, including the Mariana’s trench. The National Marine Fisheries Service has declared deep sea corals to be essential fish habitat. The NOAA office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research is actively involved in surveying the deep sea, especially to determine the limits of our outer continental shelf—the boundary at which the very deep sea begins. Several of our panelists also noted that the United States has not yet signed the Law of the Sea. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) outlines the rights and responsibilities nations have toward the world’s oceans, including guidelines for businesses, the environment, and management of natural resources. UNCLOS could be a good framework to help promote better deep sea governance, especially given that much of the deep sea exists outside of national boundaries. By not signing the convention, the ability of the United States to help shape the governance of the deep
sea is limited.

DiW: How will Duke and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions use this information in research intended to contribute to the larger conversation around these issues?

LP: The Nicholas Institute continues to work closely with our partners at the Nicholas School, especially Cindy van Dover, Pat Halpin, and James Kraska, to further the policy discussion on better ways of managing the living and non-living resources of the deep sea.

The Nicholas Institute is in a unique position to foster conversations between industries, government, scientists, and environmentalists. That was the intent of the latest Washington Forum, and others planned for the future—to keep the conversation moving in the right direction.