The skies were grey and the biting wind gusted and whirled, whipping the half-dozen or so Hae Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian flags) into an urgent, noisy frenzy. There, undeterred by the cold and intermittent rain, nearly a hundred kiaʻi, dressed in black, gathered on the beach at Sand Island – the weather a manifestation of their solemn purpose.
It was December 14, the day that the Hidden Gem, one of the world’s largest deep sea mining vessels, was scheduled to enter Hawaiian waters and dock in Honolulu.
The vessel, flying under the Maltese flag, is operated by AllSeas, a Swiss-based offshore contractor specializing in subsea construction and commissioned by The Metals Company, a Canadian mining company. The Hidden Gem is believed to have been carrying over 3,000 tons of polymetallic nodules extracted during a deep sea mining trial conducted in waters southeast of Hawaiʻi.
The rally and press conference was organized by long-time ʻāina protector Andre Perez (of the land-back group Koʻihonua) to raise community awareness about the imminent and environmentally catastrophic danger posed by deep sea mining (DSM).
“The greed of corporations aiming to profit from the devastation of our deep seas is no different from the colonial powers that exploited and devastated native lands everywhere. We will not allow the same in our oceans,” said Perez.
The press conference was attended by at least a dozen media outlets. Speakers included Polynesian Voyaging Society CEO and Pwo Navigator Nainoa Thompson, Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustee for Kauaʻi and Niʻihau Dan Ahuna, celebrated Lahaina waterman Archie Kalepa, cultural practitioner and educator Kumu Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, and Solomon Kahoʻohalahala, a long-time activist and member of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument Advisory Council and Native Hawaiian Working Group who has emerged as Hawaiʻi’s leading spokesperson against DSM at the international level.
Just offshore, Hōkūleʻa sister canoe Hikianalia and her crew were anchored in a show of solidarity for the burgeoning ʻAʻole Deep Sea Mining movement.
“We know we can kill the ocean. We have the capacity to do that. But we also know [if] the ocean dies, we die. We hurt the oceans, we hurt ourselves. [We are] changing the chemistry of the ocean and, at some point,” said Thompson, pausing to gesture towards the sky, “the ocean will change the atmosphere because it’s the same thing. It’s water.”
Of particular interest to international mining companies is the 1.7 million square mile Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ). It is about 500 miles south of Hawaiʻi Island and stretches about 3,100 miles from the central Pacific Ocean towards Mexico (wider than the continental United States). The CCZ is incredibly deep – 2.5 to 3.5 miles – and an area of tremendous biodiversity with most of its inhabitants as yet unnamed by human beings.
Mining companies covet the potato-sized polymetallic nodules found on, or just below, the seabed of the CCZ. These nodules contain valuable deposits of minerals such as nickel, manganese, copper, zinc and lithium – metals sought for use in batteries and other so-called “green” technologies.
The process for extracting the nodules is violent and destructive. Huge robotic machines crawl over the seabed indiscriminately scraping off the top layer of the ocean floor to excavate the nodules. The nodules, along with sediment and the creatures who live there, are sucked into tubes and pumped up to the surface.
The nodules are extracted from the resulting sludge and then the waste water and debris are dumped back into the ocean forming large toxic sediment clouds that can spread over hundreds of square miles. Data from experimental dredge sites indicate that decades after the seabed is disturbed by mining, the areas remain dead zones.
“The Indigenous people of this planet have been its greatest protectors,” Kalepa said. “As Indigenous people who come from the sea, our responsibility is to be the voice for those who cannot speak: the beings that live beneath the sea. If we cannot protect that, who are we?”
Speaking to his concern for his children’s futures Kalepa added, “I fear that mining ship coming into Pacific waters, raping and pillaging; taking what is not theirs to take and what is our’s to protect.”
“As Native Hawaiians, protection of our ocean is not a question because the ocean is our source of life,” Ahuna declared. “We have global support to protect our oceans from deep sea mining [and prevent it from] destroying what we need to survive. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs affirms that the ocean is our source of life. It is not just a resource to be exploited by corporations for profit.”
Despite broad consensus from scientists that DSM should be limited or banned altogether, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), with kuleana for developing policies for seabed mining, has already awarded 16 exploration contracts to companies hungry to profit from the CCZ’s polymetallic nodules. Observers compare it to the gold rush fever of the 19th century.
For several years, Kahoʻohalahala has been involved in discussions on biodiversity at the international level, representing Native Hawaiian interests at the United Nations (UN) and, more recently, at the ISA – an arm of the UN. Soft-spoken and humble, Kahoʻohalahala downplays his work in the international arena. He shared that his inspiration comes from the Kumulipo.
“This journey has been led by our kūpuna,” he said. “The Kumulipo says energy that is created in the deepest part of the ocean will come together as kāne and wahine to create the first creature, and that is the coral polyp. We bear the responsibility to mālama all things that preceed us, and that takes us all the way back to the eldest of our kūpuna which come from the deep sea.
“Had the earth not been created in a place of balance we would not be here today. We should all understand that if we destroy the ocean we destroy our lives. We cannot allow these kinds of practices.
“Decisions and policies are being made over the horizon – yet those decisions are going to impact us directly. As we speak, the ISA is seeking licenses and permits to begin mining the ocean. “
Kahoʻohalahala noted that one of the many consequences of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom was Hawaiʻi’s removal from the international community of nations, leaving our people’s seat at the table of international policymaking vacant. “I want to be a voice for the seat that represents us at the table,” he said.
Oceans cover 71% of the earth’s surface. About 80% of the earth’s biodiversity and 94% of the world’s wildlife are found in its oceans – yet only 5% of the ocean floor has been explored and charted. The deep seas remain largely unknown, with some 2,000 new species being identified each year.
Believing that deep sea mining poses irrevocable harm to the oceans – and by extension, the planet and humanity itself, more than 800 marine scientists from 44 countries have signed a marine expert statement calling for a pause to deep sea mining until “sufficient and robust scientific information has been obtained to make informed decisions as to whether deep sea mining can be authorized without significant damage to the marine environment and, if so, under what conditions.”
The ISA will be meeting again in March. Kahoʻohalahala is working with a coalition of Indigenous Pacific leaders from dozens of countries in preparation for that meeting – a united voice to speak on behalf of Moananuiākea and her people against DSM.
Referring to the mining companies Wong-Kalu said, “You do not have our permission. You do not have our voice of welcome and aloha to come and take from that which is the fundamental composition of who we are as a people.”
Wong-Kalu continued, “This affects each and every one of us. This does not exclude anyone. Deep sea mining is not something we can allow. This is a call to action. This press conference today calls upon every one of us who live in Hawaiʻi to be on high alert – not just to what is happening on the sea, but what is happening behind the political and economic doors of power.”