Deep-sea mining may disrupt whale communication, study finds

A blue whale surfaces to breathe in an undated picture from NOAA
A blue whale surfaces to breathe in an undated picture from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA/Handout via Reuters

JOHANNESBURG, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Noise produced by mining the seabed for nickel, cobalt and other metals for the green energy transition could interfere with whales' ability to navigate the ocean depths and communicate with one another, according to a study released on Tuesday.

Potato-sized rocks filled with battery metals blanket vast swathes of the ocean floor at depths of 4 to 6 kilometers (2.5 to 3.7 miles). Several companies have proposed to essentially vacuum those nodules from the seabed and process their metals for use in electric vehicle batteries.

The peer-reviewed study, funded by Umweltstiftung Greenpeace, a foundation arm of the environmental organisation, argues that more research is needed to assess the risk deep-sea mining could pose to large marine mammals, although researchers did not collect field data themselves.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a Jamaica-based United Nations body, may approve deep-sea mining for international waters as soon as this summer. Leaders in France, Fiji, Canada and Germany have voiced concerns about the practice.

Supporters of deep-sea mining say it would lessen the need for large mining operations on land, which are often unpopular with host communities. Detractors say far more research is needed to determine how deep sea mining could affect aquatic ecosystems.

The Metals Company Inc (TMC.O) and others are pushing ahead with plans to extract these nodules from the Clarion Clipperton Zone, an ocean region in the northern Pacific where the ISA has granted 17 seabed mining exploration licences. An estimated 22 to 30 cetacean species, including endangered blue whales, live in the area, according to the study.

"The sounds produced from mining operations, including from remotely operated vehicles on the sea floor, overlap with the frequencies at which cetaceans communicate," said the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

Previous research on ocean noise has found whales can suffer negative effects from deep-sea mining. One study found man-made noise could increase the risk of humpback whale mothers being separated from their calves because their normal vocalisations are quiet.

Vancouver-based The Metals Company said it is studying acoustic data collected over three years with independent researchers to determine "what the true impacts could be" on whales.

"The Greenpeace paper is purely speculative, based upon zero in-field data and funded by the industry's most vocal opponent," Dr. Michael Clark, environmental manager for The Metals Company, said in a statement.

Automakers Renault SA (RENA.PA), BMW (BMWG.DE) and Rivian Automotive Inc (RIVN.O) oppose deep-sea mining.

Reporting by Helen Reid; additional reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by William Mallard

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