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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Protect our coral reefs


There is now intense debate for and against the deep-sea mining proposed for the Bismarck and Milne Bay waters. Civil societies, the public, customary land owners and sea owners, academics and university students argue that the environmental cost of the deep-sea mining is unknown and could be catastrophic therefore the proposal should be shelved for now.
Nautilus Minerals Limited (Nautilus) on the other hand is adamant that it has spent millions of dollars exploring the sea floor of the Bismarck Sea and will mine the seabed regardless of concerns raised on the environmental consequences of the mining on marine ecosystems. Moreover, Nautilus is determined to see PNG become the first country in the world to use state-of-the-art technology to do deep-sea mining because it has been given the green light to do so by the PNG government.
 Neither side is willing to throw in the towel. Therefore funds are being raised right now by civil societies and the public to take the matter to court so that justice is done and the deep-sea mining proposal is shelved for now. Nautilus on the other hand is organizing public forums to appease public outcry and attempt to find a way forward.
In 2009 the Department of Environment and Conservation on behalf of the PNG government adopted a 10-year Regional Action Plan to protect coral reefs and other marine ecosystems through the Coral Triangle Initiative. The initiative included Indonesia, Malaysia, Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands and PNG. Through the initiative these countries agreed to support people-centered biodiversity conservation, sustainable development, poverty reduction and equitable development. 
However, the very department that signed the Coral Triangle Initiative to protect coral reefs and marine ecosystems has now issued environmental permits for Nautilus to do deep-sea mining in the Bismarck and Milne Bay waters. This action now contradicts what was agreed under the Coral Triangle Initiative and compromises the department’s position as the regulator of the environment in PNG and questions whether the department has the heart to protect the country’s coral reefs and marine ecosystems.
PNG has a coral reef area of some 14,000 km2, and ranks second to Australia (48, 000 km2) in terms of coral reef area if we exclude countries like France and others who have colonies with discrete populations of coral reefs.  Much of the coral reefs in PNG occur within the Bismarck and Milne Bay waters and generally remain intact and in good health.
Reef-building corals have a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship - one organism depends on the survival of the other - with a microscopic, one cell algae species called zooxanthellae. The algae species produces oxygen, helps the coral to remove waste, and supplies the coral with carbohydrates for coral reef growth. In return, the coral reef provides the algae a protected environment and other compounds that are necessary for photosynthesis. This symbiotic relationship is so important that sedimentation of the ocean and any changes in the ocean’s temperature and pH (acidity or alkalinity) can adversely affect coral reef growth and health.
It is now known that due to the build-up of man-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the world’s oceans now take in one-quarter of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is acidifying the world’s oceans and the zooxanthellae populations are being expelled from the coral reefs due to high levels of carbonic acid in seawater. Consequently, the coral reefs cannot survive without the zooxanthellae and many can starve to dead. Dead of large areas of coral reefs, usually exposed skeletons that have a white color, is known as coral bleaching. The impact of ocean acidification is not pronounced at the moment in the Pacific, but this will gradually increase in the near future.
Global warming is also responsible for warming of the world’s atmosphere and the ocean surfaces. Thus the warming of the world’s ocean surfaces has resulted in bleaching of coral reefs in some parts of the world. In the Pacific the warming of the oceans through global warming has not had any profound effect, but it is predicted that these impacts will be more pronounced in the near future.
Mining of the ocean floor in the Bismarck Sea threatens our coral reefs due to the prospect of further acidification of the oceans. It is now known that substantial damage will be done on the ocean floor. Excavation of the ocean floor will involve digging up of volcanic mounts and breaking down of 15 – 20m tall hydrothermal vents. Consequently, tons of rocks and sediments will be pumped up to ships on the sea surface in the form of slurry.
Excavation of the ocean floor will result in a change in the pH of the water column at the excavation site. Chemical elements buried beneath sediments and within rocks will be exposed to the seawater due to the damage that will be done. As a result chemical reactions will take place between the stirred sediments and broken surfaces of the excavated rocks, thus the ocean’s pH will be altered.
From basic science one understands that a diffusion gradient is created when particles move from a high concentration area to a low concentration area. Thus if the excavation on the ocean floor turns the seafloor water column acidic due to the chemical reactions that will take place, a diffusion gradient will be created horizontally, laterally or vertical through the water column. Consequently the Bismarck Sea could turn acidic and endanger our populations of coral reefs.  This combined with the looming threats posed by climate change through warming of the ocean surface and the acidification of the oceans through uptake of excessive made-made greenhouse gases from the atmosphere can cause massive bleaching of our coral reefs. Thus this threatens the survival of all other species (including man) that inhabits the Bismarck Sea and beyond.
One other effect of excavation on the ocean floor is the proliferation of certain microorganisms through change in pH of the water column. Certain microorganisms depend on temperature and pH of the water to be conducive for their exponential growth. At a certain pH and temperature, these organisms exist in small numbers, but once the conditions become conducive for their proliferation they reproduce exponentially for a certain period. Then the population decreases and levels off when food sources are depleted or the environment is no longer conducive for their reproduction.
Such a case occurred with ocean dredging for sand to reclaim land from the sea in Japan a few years ago. In the attempt to reclaim land from the sea in a seaside city in Japan a few years back, the ocean floor was dredged for sand. However, the dredging caused damage to the sea floor and released sediments and chemical elements buried beneath the sand into the ocean water column. This action changed the pH of the seawater column and as a result it created an environment that was conducive to the growth of a certain microorganism. These microorganisms then reproduced exponentially and were dispersed vertically, laterally and horizontally through the sea water column due to underwater currents.
As these microorganisms were swept by underwater currents towards the shoreline, they infected populations of seashells. Consequently, the seashells died and were washed ashore by underwater currents and the waves, with hundreds of tons of seashells littering the shoreline and the smell of rotting seashells could be inhaled some kilometers away. This was an environmental disaster.
Although ocean dredging for sand in Japan was done at depths not comparable to that proposed for the deep-sea mining in the Bismarck Sea, there is a high probability for such an environmental disaster to occur. Excavation on the ocean floor can change the pH of the seawater column and create an environment conducive for certain microorganisms to proliferate. Then these microorganisms will have to be dispersed through the water column due to underwater currents or the effect of a diffusion gradient. Thus these microorganisms can create environmental disasters if they infect higher organisms like seashells.   
Much of PNG’s coral reefs remain intact and in good health at the moment. Therefore, these populations of coral reefs need to be protected at all cost for the livelihood of our coastal populations. Moreover, the PNG government has signed a treaty under the Coral Triangle Initiative and has the obligation to protect these coral reefs and the ecosystems that exist therein. Therefore, any action contrary to supporting people-centered biodiversity conservation, sustainable development, poverty reduction and equitable development can only mean that the government is more interested in money from mining and has no concern for its own people and the very environment that their very lives depend on.
Nalau Bingeding is a Research Fellow in the Land and Economic Division within the Wealth Creation Pillar at the National Research Institute

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