I would like to comment on the various Te Ipukarea Society (TIS) criticisms (Cook Islands News, February 20) of my article about the possible impacts of seabed mining on nodule-associated benthic megafauna (Cook Islands News, February 11), writes Gerald McCormack of Natural Heritage Trust.
TIS calls for independent research and the information I quoted on the megafauna in the Central South Penrhyn Basin (SPB) was exactly that. The Japanese scientists were independent researchers. Although their megafauna and macrofauna surveys were very limited, it was fortunate they were focused on the Central Area of the SPB, which has the highest concentration of nodules and is where mining, if it occurs, will probably be focused. As a result, their survey of “0.000001 per cent of our EEZ” is both relevant and useful.
TIS found the independent Japanese research inadequate
because they did not identify animals to species level. There was no need for
species or even morphospecies identification because the research only
concerned megafaunal biomass. The Japanese recorded their observations in a
similar way to the Vanreusel et al. (2016) research which “kept ….
identifications to higher taxonomic ranks (Class or Order)”. It was therefore valid to directly compare
the Japanese SPB and Vanreusel data.
TIS dismissed the Japanese data because it was a single
transect and suggested it was misleading to compare a “one-off survey” with
“extensive surveys conducted over many years” in the CCZ. This is completely
false. In the Vanreusel research each data point on the graph was based on an
average of three transects at each site covering both nodule-rich and
nodule-free areas. The Japanese data covering a nodule-rich area alone, was
obtained with a 22km transect; it is therefore directly comparable to each
nodule-rich data point in the Vanreusel study.
TIS accuses me of encouraging six mines, which lead me to
conclude their anonymous author only skimmed over the article. That does not
surprise me; it was rather tedious, being full of scientific detail. To correct
any skimmers misunderstanding, I’ll summarise why I used a six-mine scenario to
estimate a likely maximum level of damage to the nodule-rich habitat in the
In areas where nodule collectors remove all nodules, the
associated benthic megafauna and their habitat will be completely destroyed. To
highlight this unfortunate fact, I could have used the scenario that mines
would eventually cover our entire EEZ leading to the conclusion that they would
destroy all nodule-associated megafauna in the Cook Islands.
However, such a scenario is neither realistic nor useful because
in the literature it is widely predicted that nodule-mining will be rather
limited in scope and duration. To seek a more realistic estimate of the
possible damage, if mining is approved, I allowed for a maximum of three
concurrent 20-year mines and assumed that recycling would make them
unprofitable in about 40 years: a total of six mines!
I did not encourage or recommend six mines; I used six mines
to make a realistic estimate of the likely maximum damage to our nodule-rich
habitat within the life-span of the industry. If recycling is accelerated, and
cobalt is reduced within batteries, the industry might be economically sunk
before it can start or finish within 20 years.
Nevertheless, based on my maximum of six-mines scenario, I
stand by my opinion that the removal of 20,000km² of nodule-rich habitat,
thereby leaving 180,000km², is not a serious reduction in that habitat. Since
publishing the article, I discovered I overlooked a further 100,000km² of
nodule-rich habitat in the SPB, so the remaining unmined habitat under my
scenario would be 280,000km², which is 93 per cent of the original habitat or
2.4x the area of the North Island of New Zealand. I also wrote that more
research is necessary to ensure that potential mine sites do not have any restricted-range
Despite what TIS says, there is no contradiction in using a
six-mine scenario to estimate the likely total damage for this particular
mining impact, while continuing to advocate that, if mining is approved, only
one mine should open until monitoring proves it to be environmentally
TIS is correct in pointing out that some of this remaining
unmined habitat will be negatively impacted by sediment plumes stating: “some
deep-sea scientists predict this could be between two and five times more than
the area mined.” While we can objectively discuss the removal of nodule-rich
habitat by mining, factoring in plume size is not yet possible, because we do
not know the SPB bottom-water speed nor the design of potential
nodule-collectors. Nevertheless, I was remiss in not mentioning that seabed
sediment plumes would increase the area of damage by some unknown amount and
this should be included when known.
TIS obviously did not like my analysis so they decided to
undermine or invalidate it. They declared me to be a terrestrial ecologist and
thereby lacking the expertise to correctly understand scientific papers on
deep-sea ecosystems. Actually, I am not a terrestrial ecologist. My First-Class
Master of Science of 1972 made me a near-shore marine biologist, and my thesis
was on animal behaviour.
When I came here as the Education Science Advisor in 1980 my
biodiversity interest was reefal marine biology. After a year or two I extended
my interests into terrestrial biodiversity. Over the years I have studied a lot
of terrestrial biodiversity scientific information and gained a useful level of
expertise, despite being a marine biologist. I’m very surprised at TIS’s
negative attitude to people gaining expertise by studying.
Over the last seven years I have done extensive literature
research into seabed mining and the associated environment and have developed
an adequate level of expertise to make that information available. My aim has
been to objectively describe the relevant environment and indicate likely
impacts from nodule mining, if it occurs. My presentations have been neither
for nor against mining, which is a separate and very different discussion.
As an ex-science curriculum developer, I work to share my
knowledge, especially in illustrations, to enable a more constructive community
dialogue. In this way, people can realistically evaluate the various threats to
the environment for themselves, and not be told by others what they should
Best practise in peer reviewing is at least two anonymous
reviewers appointed by the prospective publisher. If this were required for
local news articles, the anonymous TIS criticism would not have contained the
ad hominem attack. Furthermore, my article did not offer any new research, it
simply reported already published research. And, from that data I drew various
conclusions for which I am solely responsible.
I greatly appreciate any objective discussion of possible
misinterpretations of the scientific papers I quote and simplify into text and illustrations.
But please don’t shoot the messenger.
kelvin passfield on 24/02/2021
I want to clarify that our article was not anonymous. I emailed Gerald before submitting our article to let him know we had issues with several of his points and would therefore be replying in the newspaper. I also said I hoped he would not take it personally. I received a cordial response from him.
I could have put my name to the article but it also had input from a number of other Te Ipukarea Society members, so we signed off as TIS.
We regret that Gerald has perceived our response as a personal attack on him - it was not. Our main issue, as stated clearly in our article, was that the Seabed Minerals Authority shared, in a post they paid to promote, his opinion and conclusions, which we believe are flawed, without first having them vetted by deep-sea scientists.