From deep-sea mining to industrial-scale fishing, human activities in the oceans are expanding massively in a realm where few rules apply. Only now are we grappling with how to regulate the rush to plunder the seas
20 April 2022
IN THE 1970s, the tiny Pacific island state of Nauru was briefly one of the richest countries in the world. Its per-capita income was on a par with Saudi Arabia, only this wealth was built not on oil, but on faeces. For millennia, passing seabirds deposited their droppings on the island, creating a thick crust of phosphate-rich guano, ripe to be made into fertiliser.
It didn’t last: the guano was all scraped away around 20 years ago. Now Nauru, no longer filthy rich, is the prime mover in another, controversial push to exploit resources. As of last year, the country is fronting an effort to kick-start deep-sea mining in the Pacific, perhaps as early as 2023.
It is a microcosm of a much wider story. As pressures on Earth’s land grow and terrestrial resources look increasingly exhausted, governments and corporations are seeing the next big wins on, in and under the high seas. Whether it is mineral exploration, shipping, energy, tourism, desalination, cable laying, bioprospecting or more, ocean-based industries are picking up speed fast.
This “blue acceleration” has many people worried. Our record on sustainable development on land is hardly good. With the power to profit from remote ocean resources growing rapidly, and the laws that govern their exploitation less than clear, we risk a free-for-all in the deep. “Our society has been based on the degradation of nature, destruction of nature,” says marine ecologist Enric Sala, a National Geographic Explorer in Residence. “It is very important to …