Digging an Early Grave? The potential effects of the deep-sea mining industry on Barbados 

Deep-sea mining's potential impact on Barbados: balancing economic opportunity with environmental concerns.

“De sea ain’t got nuh back door” is a common proverb among Barbadian folk and is typically a warning to take every precaution while at sea, as conditions can change in an instant. The relationship between many Barbadians and the deep sea is met with fear, as it is often viewed as endless, barren, and desolate. In reality, growing scientific research in the field shows the deep-sea hosts unique ecosystems, a wide range of biodiversity, and is key in ocean-climate regulation. As terrestrial resources dwindle, interests have turned to the deep seafloor for the mining of precious metals in international waters needed for technological advancement. Views on pursuing deep sea mining are mixed as on one hand it is seen as an avenue for economic development for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like Barbados and the wider region, but on the other as a destructive venture that will negatively impact ocean life and contribute to climate change. Barbados, like a growing number of countries, needs to contribute to the discussion and voice where the country stands regarding deep-sea mining.

Deep-sea mining's potential impact on Barbados: balancing economic opportunity with environmental concerns.
An area full of life discovered during a deep-sea expedition at the Barbados Accretionary Prism between the islands of Barbados and Trinidad. Pictured is a congregation of deep-sea mussels and shrimp around a mud volcano (courtesy of divaamon.com)

The metals in question are polymetallic nodules; aggregates of copper, cobalt, and nickel, which would be extracted and used for sustainable technologies such as solar panels and batteries for electric vehicles. The main area of interest for the mining of these nodules is in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), which lies between Mexico and Hawaii beyond the national jurisdiction of any country. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the International Seabed Authority (ISA) was formed to govern all mining activities on the seabed in international waters, also known as ‘the Area’, and it is through this organization that interested mining companies and countries must apply for licenses to either explore or exploit the mineral resources in these areas.

Deep-sea mining's potential impact on Barbados: balancing economic opportunity with environmental concerns.
A field of polymetallic nodules. These potato-sized aggregations are being pursued, namely in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, to aid in the green technologies revolution (courtesy of magzter.com).

The deep sea is a poorly studied realm, however, and organizations and countries are raising their voices either against deep-sea mining or are calling for a moratorium on all mining activities until sufficient scientific research has been conducted to ensure that mining can occur in a sustainable manner. The ISA is mandated to ensure all humankind benefits from activities related to mineral resources in the Area, and to protect the marine environment from harmful impacts that may occur due to deep-sea mining. As such, countries are calling for the Mining Code, a framework of rules and regulations that regulates all mining activities in the Area, to be finalized before any exploitative activities are allowed to begin.

While mining companies such as The Metals Company tout deep-sea mining as a way to aid in the development of green technologies, other organizations and countries disagree, as studies have revealed potential mining impacts being irreversible damage to fragile life on the seafloor, commercially important fish such as tuna changing migration patterns, and the disruption of the deep sea’s ability to sequester 40% of the carbon generated by humans and mitigate rising temperatures.    

Deep-sea mining's potential impact on Barbados: balancing economic opportunity with environmental concerns.
The pilot nodule collector owned by The Metals Company; one of the leading voices in support of mining the deep seabed (courtesy of cnbc.com).

SIDS such as Barbados are already battling the effects of climate change caused by the industrialization of the global north. The island has been experiencing sea-level rise and extreme heat waves, affecting the health and wellbeing of the vulnerable in the community and the island’s agriculture. The Caribbean region has also seen the passing of rapidly intensified weather systems within the last few weeks, which further threaten life and property. Studies also indicate that mining activities will affect species such as tuna which are important to commercial fisheries. Sediment plumes generated by mining equipment travel long distances and noise and light pollution could cause stress to tuna populations and lead them to change their behavior and migration patterns. Barbados exports tuna to the United States twice a week and is a major source of foreign exchange for the country, valued at over $BDS 6 million a year.  The implications mining could have on the fishing industry must be considered. 

Many organizations see beginning a new extractive industry in the deep sea in the midst of a triple planetary crisis as unwise, with Greenpeace stating, “Risking this delicate system during a climate emergency could have irreversible impacts on the climate.” It is now wealthy countries such as Norway and the United Kingdom and mining companies that would further put Barbados at risk in pursuit of these metals in the deep sea.

Mr. Travis Gardiner, the Research and Development Coordinator of the Sustainable Ocean Alliance Caribbean stated that Barbados is one of 169 member states of the UNCLOS, which also makes it a contributing member of the ISA, however, the island has been absent in negotiations at the ISA’s headquarters in Jamaica where countries are deciding whether or not the industry should receive the green light. Gardiner said Barbados imports many of its goods, and if mining should occur, the island will feel the ripple effects. It will also affect the very nature of the technologies the country imports to power its green revolution, and as Barbados’ international reputation as an environmental steward grows, it is important that the resources used to achieve this are done through sustainable methods.

Deep-sea mining's potential impact on Barbados: balancing economic opportunity with environmental concerns.
The 23rd Assembly of the International Seabed Authority in Kingston, Jamaica. Negotiations actively take place here among many countries and organizations to determine the fate of commercial deep-sea mining (courtesy of bluenodules.eu).

Gardiner noted that while Barbados did not have an official position on deep-sea mining, the Caribbean Development Bank’s 2018 thematic paper: ‘Financing the Blue Economy: A Caribbean Development Opportunity.’ lists it as a “New and high-value” blue economy growth industry, but this does not fit the framework of being sustainable on a larger scale.

One of the key issues when sharing information about deep-sea mining is that mining companies are not providing the public with all of the implications that follow as a result of these activities, Gardiner says. Public awareness also needs to be raised and greater involvement for the public in the decision-making process in choosing the types of technology used to advance society.

The topic of deep-sea mining and the effects it could have on the island is yet to be broached in Barbados. There are also no climate activists in Barbados who are well versed on deep-sea mining and unfortunately none were able to be interviewed to contribute to the story. Awareness of deep-sea mining needs to be raised among the public so that the island becomes more informed and is able to represent itself in the key negotiations taking place at the ISA. The 28th Council Meeting (Part III) occurs on October 30th – November 8th 2023 where discussions around the Mining Code continue. The government of Barbados must ensure the nation’s voice is heard in upcoming meetings if it is to stop this destructive industry from becoming commercialized and contributing to climate change; or as a vulnerable island see its effects be exacerbated. 


This story was published on IsleThree with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.

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Kyle Foster

Kyle Foster

Kyle is a writer and ecologist residing on the island of Barbados. With a deep passion for sharing the stories of the natural world, he has dedicated his craft to raising awareness about environmental issues. Much of his writing experience stems from publishing captivating stories with renowned platforms such as the Sustainable Ocean Alliance Caribbean and the Cari-Bois Environmental News Network. Through the art of storytelling, his ultimate goal is to bring attention to the pressing environmental challenges that surround us. Additionally, he devotes time to his personal blog, where he documents his immersive experiences in nature through detailed field journal entries.

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