Underwater colonialism

Exploitation of cetaceans and minerals

This is not the first time that man's colonizing hand has focused on the Azorean archipelago as a source of resources to extract. The industrial revolution introduced cetacean oil as a main source of lighting as well as lubrication for industrial machinery. Unsustainable whaling in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has made whales victim of the longest and most systematic attack on a wild species in the history of mankind. This is a fact that is closey tied with the Azorean past that we compare here to another resource from the bottom of its sea - the ore - notably manganese, cobalt, and polymetallic nodules from which other rare metals and minerals can be extracted. Although these resources are primarily used in the telecommunications industry, these mines have been promoted as a way of bridging the shortage of raw material needed for a transition to renewable energies. However, this argument is highly questionable as several reports have shown that a full transition to renewable energy is possible by 2050 without the need for seabed minerals.

There is a lack of knowledge about the deep sea, and what kind of species inhabit it, however plans for prospection and extraction are already being put into action, without precautionary measures. Ore mining activities are planned near the marine reserves of the Azorean maritime park where biodiversity is extremely rich, and where endangered species such as some cetaceans have their migratory pathways.

Large amounts of biodiversity lie unmapped

Recent discussions on the anthropocene contextualize the impact of the human footprint and state that our interventions on the planet have broadly marked its natural systems. We must seriously take into consideration the scale of our ecological footprint, confronting the scope of our actions, not only considering human longevity, but also taking into account the magnitude of the geological scale at which the planet's ecosystems exist.

Many of the habitats of seamounts and hydrothermal vents are unique, with very rare endemic species that took thousands of years to develop. At abyssal depths there are life forms with special evolutionary processes, such as those that survive on a basis of transformation at a level of chemical synthesis, producing energy and living matter in a very delicate and particular manner, a process due to which it is believed that the evolution of life on earth may have taken place. The vulnerable habitat of these species whose resilience we still do not know has been little studied, therefore it is important now more than ever that we maintain the fragile balance of these ecosystems so that we do not lose them forever.

Production of knowledge in conflict

The seabed continues to be a true frontier of the unknown. It is commonly said that we know more about the surface of Mars than that of the sea floor, and in fact only three people have explored by submersible the Challenger Deep, identified as deepest known point of the oceans, while in space they have already been at least five hundred astronauts. In the 21st century, the seabed also sees its exploration dominated by private companies, who in exchange for concessions for extraction of ore offer the means to carry out scientific reconnaissance studies. There exists a divide between the interests of scientific research and the abrasive hand of industrial exploitation that is conflated here, through the availability of funds for deep sea research that would otherwise not be possible. There is an urgent need to limit the dependence of academia on research funds that come hand in hand with the private sector developing extractive activities. We should instead increase opportunity to study nature without the counterpart of possible exploitation of resources, especially when this exploitation is harmful to ecosystems.

Acoustic violence underwater 

The technology involved in territorial study can also produce abrasive effects in underwater communities. There are cumulative effects of underwater industrial activity that have less visible consequences on the life rhythms of ecosystems but that are no less damaging, such as acoustic violence. In the past decades the number of ships in circulation has increased exponentially, as well as the implementation of offshore platforms, promoting seismic refraction survey techniques for geophysical prospecting. This technique uses specialized compressed air pumps and seismic waves for mapping the earth's crust, its topography and the types of ore present in it. Using a technique similar to echolocation - which is also the basis of communication used by aquatic mammals - these studies have a very profound impact on underwater habitats, propagating aggressive noise at high decibels. If deep sea mining advances, underwater communities will be much more exposed to this type of acoustic violence. Sound travels four times faster at sea than on land, spreading rapidly over great distances. The intensification of use of maritime shipping lanes and underwater extraction activity on an industrial scale has a major impact on aquatic mammals, severely destabilizing their communication channels and their mobility. The cumulative effects of this type of activity, which is being planned alongside marine protected areas and channels of circulation of a large amount of marine biodiversity, will directly impact the habitats in question by profoundly altering underwater ecosystems.

Defending conscious literacy

Appealing for conscious development of the sea literacy project, we need precautionary and respectful forms of study of the fragility of natural ecosystems, and to generate sensible frameworks of jurisdiction that promote the protection of the seabed and its rich biodiversity in a comprehensive manner. To do so, we must take into account the broad effects of our intervention in other ecosystems, of which we ourselves are co-dependent along with so many other species. We must take account for not only the tangible, but also the invisible spectrum of impacts our actions have - as in the case of acoustic violence - or the exponential growth and potentially unpredictable effect of the human footprint beyond a time scale we can understand. It is urgent to reposition ourselves in a humble and considerate way, within the ecologies in which we cohabit, respecting the indispensable rights of the non-human.