Anonymous TIS criticism misguided

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Gerald McCormack, Natural Heritage Trust
First published CINews (24 Feb. 2021), updated.

An illustration comparing the area destroyed under the scenario of a 6-mine total industry, compared to the nodule-rich habitat at two different densities of nodules.

The following article answers Te Ipukarea Society (TIS) criticisms (CI News 20 February) of the author’s article on the possible impacts of seabed mining on nodule-associated benthic megafauna (CI News 11 February). The original article is here:

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% 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.

The 6-mine scenario

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 SPB.

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 forty 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 twenty 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% 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 species.

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 acceptable.

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.

Learning through study

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 think.

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.


McCormack, Gerald (2021) Anonymous TIS criticism misguided. Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust.

Gerald McCormack

Posted by Gerald

Gerald has worked on Cook Islands marine and terrestrial biodiversity since 1980. He was the foundation Director of the Natural Heritage Trust from 1990 to 2020.

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