The Pacific is the global epicentre of sea floor exploration for gold, copper, silver, cobalt manganese and other minerals.
A year ago, David Sheppard, Director of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment program called for more baseline environmental data to be collected to enable Pacific countries to know just what it is they are managing.
He told Jemima Garrett baseline data is still sketchy.
Presenter: Jemima Garrett
Speaker: David Sheppard, Director of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Program
SHEPPARD: The studies that have been undertaken indicate the level of species richness is very high. It does indicate that there are certain areas which are quite significant, such as what are called the seamounts for their marine biodiversity, the hydro-thermal vents and also certain depths we can see between about 15-hundred metres and 3,000 metres is the most rich for biodiversity. So some of these are known but in terms of detailed information in the Pacific it's still quite limited. There's so much that isn't known. A study of seamounts indicated that one-third of the species were actually new to science. So it's likely that the most studies that are undertaken, the more new species will be discovered.
GARRETT: Mining companies are rushing to signup exploration leases in the Pacific's EEZ's and also in the high seas. We've seen Lockheed Martin in Fiji recently come together for a deal. Are we seeing a matching level of new activity among environmental scientists?
SHEPPARD: Unfortunately we're not, I mean obviously the issue of resources is a constraint. The companies need to allocate money for independent scientific studies of the biodiversity and the environment in the deep sea, and particularly the impacts that may be associated. So this is an area that is lagging behind exploration of mineral resources, but it is important, it does need more attention and that's a very important area from SPREP' s perspective.
GARRETT: So how can countries actually make sure that the companies do this sort of research?
SHEPPARD: Well there's quite a bit of work at the moment through the SPC, and particularly the geo-science group SOPAC, looking at supporting countries in their legislative framework. So that should continue but it should also factor in the environmental factors. We had last year Jemima a meeting of the Noumea Convention, and this is 12 Pacific countries, including Australia, and the convention looks at the protection and management of the Pacific resources. That called on SPREP to recognising that there is limited information, called on SPREP to convene a meeting this year, which we'll be doing with SOPAC, looking specifically at that environmental aspect.
GARRETT: SOPAC has been criticised for perhaps not taking into account environmental issues as some people would like. What's your assessment of that situation?
SHEPPARD: Well I think there were some unfounded criticisms of SOPAC and I note the director of SOPAC's position on that. I think SOPAC recognises the need for more environmental studies. Clearly the issue is that their expertise is more in the geo-science, so the areas which relate to the resource exploitation, but that's recognised, and SPREP as the environmental agency is committed to partnering with SPC SOPAC to try to bring more environmental information to the table. But it is a challenge and it's beyond the resources of Pacific governments and also regional agencies like SPREP. So we do have to look at how the resources can be mobilised, how they can be applied, and specifically applied in the context of donation of activities on the deep sea.
GARRETT: Your meeting that's coming up later in the year, what will that look at exactly?
SHEPPARD: It will particularly look at what is the state of play relating to environmental information, it'll look at how can we better apply approaches such as environmental impact assessment, strategic impact assessment. We're working at the moment, SPREP is working with the Australian government through CSIRO on what's called marine spatial planning, basically looking at prescribed uses within different areas, protection of important marine biodiversity areas, looking at how that can be integrated into decision making. So that's something that's being done, but it needs to be equally at the table as well as the resource extraction side.
GARRETT: The Pacific is leading the world in this deep sea mining exploration. Will you be bringing in world class scientists who are working on this in the environmental area?
SHEPPARD: I think that would certainly be an objective, we're still working out the structure of this agenda, but the aim would be to get key stakeholders, and that includes civil society, environmental experts in the governments of Pacific countries, and also those people that are knowledgeable in this area. So we'd like to have a cross-section to have quality participation and to really come out with some useful recommendations as we go forward.
GARRETT: Can organisations get in touch with you if they want to be part of this?
SHEPPARD: They certainly can, we're still in the early stages of planning. So contactable through the SPREP website, at www.sprep.org.