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With deep-sea mining, the Pacific Islands are caught between money and the environment

While most Pacific islands have escaped the worst of COVID-19, a cornerstone of their economies, tourism, has taken a big hit. By June 2020, visitor arrivals in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu had completely ceased, as borders were closed and even internal travel restricted. In Fiji, where tourism generated about 40% of GDP before the pandemic, the economy contracted by 19% in 2020.

One economic alternative lies just offshore. The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) is a deep-sea trench spanning 4.5 million square kilometres in the central Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico. On its seabed are potato-sized rocks called polymetallic nodules which contain nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese. These formed over centuries through the accumulation of iron and manganese around debris such as shells or sharks’ teeth.

There are estimated to be around 21 billion tonnes of manganese nodules in this trench alone, and demand for these metals is likely to skyrocket as the world ramps up the development of batteries for electric vehicles and renewable power grids.

Credit: EPA/Jens Buettner