Letter from TerraNature to Right Honourable Helen Clark
6 September 2005
Re Mineral prospecting on the Kermadec Ridge
Dear Prime Minister
TerraNature wishes to express deep concern over the granting of mineral prospecting
licences, and expected mining licences in the Exclusive Economic Zone by the Minister of Energy.
The rush of one branch of government to exploit mineral resources from the deep seabed is
proceeding, without the adoption of measures to regulate all activities within the EEZ,
without an Oceans Policy, and with complete disregard for the conservation that would be
assumed for any comparable terrestrial activity.
Surface mining of the deep seabed will be blind, and damage caused by it will be indiscriminate,
catastrophic and long-term. This type of mining will alter geochemistry and potentially cause
the extinction of unique microbial flora. There is a need to protect flora and fauna of the
seabed because so much of it is unknown.
If mining of the deep seabed proceeds, the real environmental impact of it will never be known,
because a value cannot be placed on species that have not yet been discovered or described,
and ecosystems that are undefined, that will inevitably be damaged or possibly destroyed.
The limited range of studies carried out so far, most funded by the New Zealand government,
suggest that the deep sea biomes around New Zealand are of comparable richness to tropical
forests. So to allow the prospecting and mining of these systems would be similar to tropical
rain forest destruction, something that your government has opposed vigorously.
New Zealand is proceeding blindly into the first deepsea mining in the world, with unproven
extraction methods, and consequently an unknown return from operations, and undefined gain
that is likely to permanently affect and destroy natural resources.
Our concerns have been concluded with limited information, principally from the prospecting
licence covering 33,000 sq.km granted to Neptune Resources Limited on October 15th 2002.
This was the only document provided by the Crown Minerals division of the Ministry of Economic
Development, in response to a TerraNature Official Information Act request for all
documents relating to the licence application. Nevertheless, enough is clearly evident
for the conclusions to be sound and well justified.
The granting of the Neptune licence, and current negotiation of two successive prospecting
licences covering 90,000 sq.km is unprecedented. An award of rights over 123,000 sq.km of
Kermadec Ridge seabed, which is the equivalent of 46 percent of the land area of New Zealand,
and is 3 percent of the EEZ, would be the largest mineral prospecting area under New Zealand
sovereignty provided to one company.
The granting of a licence of this magnitude justifies review by the nation's marine science,
mining, engineering, and business experts, and development of comprehensive marine natural
resource policies by all interested Ministries. It is inappropriate that Crown Minerals is
able to independently organise the granting of licences to meet its singular mineral mining
objectives, apparently without sufficient reference to stakeholders and experts.
The government has different and conflicting methods of managing the natural resources of
the deepsea that change from one activity to another. Conservation cannot proceed because
the Marine Reserves Bill has been repeatedly delayed, yet mining is allowed to proceed
without any form of adequate regulation.
The Neptune prospecting licence contains no reference to any laws or regulations, with the
exception of the Continental Shelf Act 1964, that address measures to prevent, reduce,
control or monitor pollution of the marine environment from mining operations.
Coastal States have the obligation under Article 192 of the United Nations Convention of
the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to protect and preserve the marine environment. Article
193 recognises the sovereign right to exploit natural resources, but adds that it is pursuant
to environmental policies and in accordance with the duty to protect and preserve the marine
environment. It is clearly apparent that mineral mining of the deep seabed is proceeding
without any established New Zealand marine environmental protection policy.
UNCLOS Article 194(5) goes further in stating that measures shall include those necessary to
protect and preserve rare or fragile ecosystems. Neptune mining operations target sulphide
deposits on seamounts and around hydrothermal vents. These habitats must surely be regarded
as rare and fragile, because of their dynamic nature as centers of irradiation of species
towards virgin seabed areas, ancient coral forests, a high rate of endemism at separate
locations, and extreme environments containing organisms that live in temperatures of
The sensitivity of seamount ecosystems has previously been recognised, though inadequately.
Nineteen seamounts including the Rumble III and Brothers seamounts on the Kermadec Ridge,
were closed to fishing in September 2000 by the Minister of Fisheries, Pete Hodgson, to
safeguard the marine life and habitats they support. It is widely accepted that bottom
trawling is destructive of sensitive seamount ecosystems. Yet mineral mining which is
equally destructive, if not more so, is now being pursued on Kermadec seamounts. The
initial mineral deposits found by Neptune Resources were at the Brothers seamount.
The previously closed seamounts were selected according to a draft seamount management
strategy developed by the Ministry of Fisheries, with the assistance of the National Institute
of Water and Atmospheric Research. It is disappointing that the action of one Ministry was
so quickly compromised by another within just two years.
Neptune Resources describes the deposits of "seafloor massive sulphide" as a new asset mining
class which has not been commercially developed anywhere else in the world. This raises the
question of how the minerals will be effectively and equitably extracted, and calls for
rigorous assessment of the capability of the licensee in undertaking the first operation of
its kind. Deep seabed mining has been considered for overseas locations, but has been
determined to be economically unfeasible.
Recently, in addressing the New Zealand Recreational Fishing Council Conference, the Minister
of Conservation, Chris Carter, said the view of the government is that our marine area is as
deserving of protection as our land area. He pointed out that 14 National Parks are now
recognised as social, economic and scientific assets that almost all New Zealanders enjoy and
celebrate. The Minister very accurately added that the same is not the case in the sea.
With the massive scale of mining about to occur, the need for laws and regulations governing
all activities in the EEZ is overdue. Why does New Zealand have controls on land with the
Resource Management Act, but no similar process at sea? The same standards of
environmental assessment, and project review that are applied on land, must be enacted for the
ocean within New Zealand's jurisdiction.
There is a clear consensus amongst the scientific community that deepsea ecosystems perform
important ecological functions, in spite of our limited knowledge of them.
Deep seabed areas, particularly hydrothermal vents, appear to be one of the origins of life
on Earth. The peculiar characteristics of life in these extreme environments offer clues
about the evolution of life on Earth. Areas where methane hydrates are found provide an
important service in the maintenance of global climate balance, as a result of their function
as a greenhouse buffer. The role of hydrothermal plumes in supporting upper zooplankton
communities, demonstrates the importance of these ecosystems in the maintenance of the global
carbon cycle. Ecological interlinking has been observed between different deep seabed
ecosystems, as well as between the ecosystems of different ocean realms.
It is widely recognised that deep seabed genetic resources, as a result of their biological
characteristics that allow them to thrive in extreme conditions, hold great potential for
various applications, including uses in the health sector, for industrial processes, and
bioremediation. Marine species have proven to be efficient in treating diseases such as
carcinogenic tumors. It is concurred among experts that the potential of marine genes has
only just started to be unveiled. Once identified, the genome of many still-to-be discovered
deep seabed organisms will provide information that may be crucially important to various
The features and full potential of all aspects of deep seabed ecosystems must be considered
by the New Zealand government, in designing a comprehensive management framework. This
requires a precautionary approach as well as an ecosystem approach.
In establishing a regime addressing the exploitation of deep seabed resources, it should be
considered that appropriation of these ecosystems and resources to private interests, may not
be the correct action with respect to their scientific and human welfare contributions.
One way of looking at such deep-sea areas is to regard them as the marine equivalent of
Antarctica. Just as New Zealand has been a major player in both the formation of the
Antarctic Treaty system and the minerals extraction moratorium for the Antarctic, so there
is opportunity for New Zealand to ensure that this last great frontier for science and last
great wilderness area - the deep sea systems - is protected as a unique asset for future
generations and because of its unique intrinsic worth.
New Zealand has a huge responsibility in managing the largest EEZ in the Pacific Ocean, which
is also the fourth largest in the world. But more importantly, the country has jurisdiction
over the extensive concentration of seamounts and hydrothermal vent fields in the
Kermadec-Havre and Backarc System in the Lau Basin, which together with the archipelago group,
has been described as the highest productive area of the Southwest Pacific and a centre of
global ecosystem reproduction.
There is worldwide concern for the protection of seamounts that goes beyond prospecting and
mining. The issue of conflicting uses was addressed in the UN Secretary-General's annual
report to the 58th session of the General Assembly, which called for the need to clarify
aspects of the regime for marine science research (MSR), including the distinction between
pure and applied science, and how to address marine genetic resources. The report highlighted
conflicting uses of the deep seabed between pure MSR, mineral prospecting, bioprospecting,
and conservation. The annual report to the 58th General Assembly in 2003 identified MSR as
a specific threat to hydrothermal vents. These environments are that sensitive that excessive
sampling is regarded as harmful.
We have noticed with great pride, New Zealand's forthright position with the International
Whaling Commission as a leading nation opposing any form of commercial take of any whales,
and the development of ecotourism as an alternative industry to offset whaling. The
Department of Conservation document "The conservation of whales in the 21st century" makes
the enlightened conservation statement, "... whales have now come to symbolise the excesses
to which unrestrained human activity can go ... their potential recovery is widely seen as
a signal as to whether humans can restrain themselves for the benefit of future
We urge government to apply the same foresight to protect seamounts, establish legislation
to regulate all uses in the EEZ, and to stop mining in locations with potentially invaluable
ecosystems. As DoC says "... the conservation needs of the 21st century are very
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