As if us water babies didn’t have enough to cry about when it comes to the state of our oceans, rights to a new destructive mining process have been granted (by the Department of Mineral Resources) to three private companies that will directly impact at least 10% of South Africa’s marine environment. These grants extend across 150 000 km2 of seabed falling within South Africa’s western and southern Exclusive Economic Zone, impacting critically endangered ecosystems and our country’s most productive fishing grounds. Represented differently, you could almost squeeze 10 Swaziland’s in that area.
The mining process in question is geared toward the extraction of seabed phosphate, a mineral of which there is no shortage of above the water line, so why we are even venturing bellow it is a mystery. Just like on land, mining in the ocean has dire consequences on nearby habitats and ecosystems, especially when you are quite literally chipping away at the very foundation of this aquatic realm. In order to access these minerals, a giant wheel with teeth known as a trailing suction hopper dredge is used, a technology that is both experimental and untested making it potentially highly destructive.
This tool chews up the sea floor crushing everything in its wake before chugging it all down like a cold beer after a good arvo session in summer. This process can be compared to strip mining and happens at an alarming rate wherein it completely removes up to 3m of the sea floor which plays host to an overwhelming array of life. Once the phosphate has been pulled from the rubble, the leftovers are ejected back into the water in the form of a sediment plume, much like what happens when you eat a dodgy Durban curry ek se.
This liquid dust being spat back into the environment is filled with toxic substances such as methane, hydrogen sulphide and heavy metals. These sediment plumes once introduced back into the environment blanket the ocean much like neoprene on a good day at surfer’s corner, Muizenberg. Impacting areas far larger than where the actual mining takes place, the hazardous potential of this underwater death cloud is terrifying, smothering everything in its reach just like Granny on Christmas.
Sounds kak enough already, right? Well, it gets far worse my bru, this hack job would affect the entire water column including benthic and pelagic fish stocks and, as a result, devastate small-scale and commercial fishing. It doesn’t stop there either, as all associated jobs, livelihoods and food security benefits would be negatively impacted thus further exacerbating this country’s already crippling poverty problem.
What’s perhaps more remarkable is the fact that South Africa, along with Namibia and Angola are signatories to the Benguela Current Convention which requires us to work together, protecting our shared marine resources. On this note, one would assume it would be irrational for South Africa to even table talks about phosphate mining, let alone grant prospecting rights, as this would ultimately affect our neighbours. In fact, no country in the world has allowed bulk marine sediment mining; many countries have placed permanent bans on the activity—one of which is Namibia. Where the water found within South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone is concerned, only 0.4% falls within marine protected areas, leaving the rest of it to the mercy of man’s destructive hand.
South Africa’s current legal and Governance framework cannot cope with bulk marine sediment mining as the cumulative impact of an unregulated and unenforced seabed mining industry would be tragic. In 2015, red flags were raised in response to these proposed mining activities taking place in the future; as a result, the Safeguard Our Seabed Coalition (SOSC) was established.
SOSC, a contingent of multiple non-governmental organizations, has gone on record to state that “Seabed mining would have severe and irreversible impacts on marine ecosystems, livelihood and food security benefits sustained by our fishing industry”. Their goal is to seek out a moratorium, or total ban, on bulk marine sediment mining until a complete and strategic environmental assessment is carried out. The point of all this is to fully comprehend the impacts associated with this act of mining in efforts to put the livelihoods of our people first and not make the fat cats at the top even fatter.
The marine environment is a national asset of considerable social, biological, cultural and economic importance. South Africa’s fishing industry provides a surplus of socio-economic benefits. The commercial fishing sector supports 27 000 jobs directly and over 100 000 jobs indirectly. Moving beyond the social impacts and diving deeper into the ecological risk associated with seabed mining on our proudly South African fish a pretty bleak picture is painted. Over 1100 species of marine animals can be found cruising our shallows, with 15% of global fish species being represented.
South Africa is a biodiversity hotspot especially in the Western Cape where the cold nutrient-rich waters support an astonishing diversity of megafauna. Of these species, 13% are endemic and found nowhere else in the world making them, in effect, national treasures. This environmental disaster waiting to happen could cause irreparable harm to the fragile ecosystems that support this incredible abundance of marine life.
Shortboard, longboard, S.U.P, boogie—whatever your poison, the fact is this type of mining hits us all. Alternatives to phosphate mining do exist, and we should be pioneering these technologies of sustainable alternatives in efforts to fast-track a truly blue economy. We only have one ocean, it is the heart and lungs of our planet, driving weather systems and providing us with the oxygen that fills up every second breath we take.
The health of our country, our people and our environment—and therefore our economy—fringes on our ocean. We have a duty to protect the intrinsic value offered by our waters as well as our spiritual, cultural and overall wellbeing. For now, seabed mining is not set to commence as prospecting rights do not grant the legal ‘green light’ to mine, however they do represent the expectation that it will be allowed in the future. This, coupled with Operation Phakisa, may indicate that our faulty government may have plans to develop a bulk seabed mining industry, which is enough to make any mindful person sick to their stomach.
A brilliant video to help put the problem into context: