The final conference of the MIDAS project, the EU’s flagship research project on the impacts of deep sea mining, showed that the scientific basis needed to underpin policies is far from mature. Huge uncertainties and unknowns about the deep sea ecosystems remain. In the meantime, the industry is gearing up its technology – the prospect being that exploration could start within four years’ time. The International Seabed Authority is rushing to get regulation in place.

The MIDAS project - Managing Impacts of Deep-seA reSource exploitation - was a 3 year multidisciplinary research programme funded by the European Commission, involving 32 research institutes from across Europe. It aimed to investigate the environmental impacts of extracting mineral and energy resources from the deep-sea environment.

The MIDAS research highlights were presented in an intense scientific conference - Gent,  3rd-7th October - which was followed by a science-policy day that gathered together scientists, stakeholders and policy makers. An impressive array of studies was presented on among others the impacts of sediment plumes from tailings, the impact on species connectivity and ecosystem functioning, ecotoxicology, ecosystem resilience and recovery. Large volumes of new data were collected via 30 research expeditions. Still, researchers clearly exposed the many remaining gaps in knowledge. Many more years of research are still needed to improve our understanding of the deep sea, let alone to understand the magnitude of impact of mining.

Researchers also observed that deep-sea ecosystems continue to be impacted for decades after, and recover extremely slowly from small-scale disturbance events. Commercial-scale mining is therefore likely to significantly impact seafloor ecosystems over very long timescales – hundreds to ten thousands of years – with a risk for irreversible impacts as well.

And while science is only starting to lift the veil of the mysteries of the deep sea, the International Seabed Authority is developing a set of international regulations for deep sea mining. A working draft of the Regulations and Standard Contract Terms on Exploitation for Mineral Resources is in public consultation till 2nd November. This will be complemented later in the year with a draft environmental regulation. The question is whether scientific knowledge is sufficient to inform the shaping of such regulations.

MIDAS has much helped to enhance the dialogue between stakeholders, among others by organising regular science-policy panels in which Seas At Risk and other NGOs, industry and policy makers participated. It is therefore all the more regrettable that the Commission is not foreseeing a follow up to this project.

Given the many uncertainties and knowledge gaps, combined with the substantial risk of irreversible harm, Seas At Risk will continue to advocate a strong precautionary approach and strict regulations, focusing on circular economy alternatives to deep sea mining in order to prevent this potentially destructive activity to take root in the deep sea.

To get a flavour of deep sea mining research, see this video in which you can see some MIDAS experts at work.

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