Noise from seafloor mining can interfere with whales’ ability to communicate with each other, just as plans to accelerate deep-sea mining for battery metals begin, according to a study released Tuesday.
The peer-reviewed study, funded by the environmental group Foundation Umweltstiftung Greenpeace, argues that more research is needed to assess the risks that deep-sea mining may pose to large marine mammals.
Several countries and companies are advancing plans to mine the metal-rich battery rock that covers much of the ocean floor. Mining in international waters will not be allowed until the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a Jamaica-based United Nations agency, agrees on regulations.
In the Clipperton Clarion Zone of the North Pacific Ocean, home to an estimated 22 to 30 species of cetaceans, including the endangered blue whale, the ISA has awarded 17 seabed mining exploration permits.
“Sounds from mining operations, including those from subsea remote-controlled vehicles, overlap with cetacean communication frequencies,” said the study, published in Frontiers in Marine Science.
Mining could generate noise at multiple frequencies that can travel hundreds of kilometers, impairing the ability of marine mammals to navigate using echolocation and disrupting the messages they send through whale songs, the study said.
Previous studies of ocean noise have found that whales are negatively affected. Anthropogenic sounds can increase the risk of humpback mothers being separated from their calves because their normal vocalizations are quiet, a study has found.
“The impacts of BLOS on cetaceans were largely unquantifiable and unnoticed, as were other pelagic predator species dependent on deep-sea areas, including sharks,” the authors wrote.
The ISA will host international negotiations in March and July this year as it works to finalize the regulations by the July deadline.