The government must now address other threats to the region’s vulnerable wildlife and communities.
Australia’s northern territory has incredibly healthy tropical coastlines and seas – a dazzling mosaic of seaweed meadows, coral reefs, mangroves, estuaries and vast tidal flats that support many wildlife as well as indigenous and other communities. The region is home to six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles, migrating whales and bottlenose dolphins, as well as several vulnerable species such as dugongs and sawfish.
These coastal areas contribute A$2 billion annually to the local economy, supporting more than 6,300 jobs in education, indigenous industries such as indigenous ranger programs and cultural tourism, and recreational fishing and tourism, helping to reduce net emissions through sequestration and storage. called blue carbon in coastal wetlands and other habitats.
Recently, this wild, diverse and unique region has been spared a serious and long-standing threat: seabed mining, a growing trend worldwide as companies seek to extract minerals, gas and other resources from the seabed, both in coastal waters and offshore.
In August 2021, the Northern Territory government formalized a permanent ban on mining in the territory. The ban came after years of work by conservation groups, including The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Australian Marine Conservation Society, in collaboration with traditional owners, commercial and recreational fishermen, tourism operators, scientists and local communities.
Similar to surface or open pit mining on land, seabed mining involves dredging or excavating portions of the seabed to extract minerals. It differs from oil and petroleum mining in that it has a much wider footprint on the surface of the seafloor. Rather than extracting liquid or gas from a hole punched in the seafloor, it involves removing broad sections of the seafloor or even seamounts from which the desired minerals are then extracted.
The practice often results in the removal or destruction of coral, other marine life and habitat, including areas where commercially and recreationally important species feed and breed. The process also raises massive sediment clouds, some of which can travel long distances, that can smother or otherwise adversely affect marine life, including plankton and fish.
Commercial interest in offshore mineral exploration in the Northern Territory increased dramatically from 2006 to 2011. During that time, companies applied for licenses to explore and mine valuable natural environments such as Fog Bay, Anson Bay and Highland Bay, Galivinka (Elcho Island) and Wessel Islands, Blue Mud Bay, Groot Eilandt and Limmen Bay. This provoked strong opposition from numerous communities who were concerned about the environmental, cultural, social and economic consequences. The Northern Territory government initially responded by declaring a three-year moratorium on seabed mining in March 2012. This moratorium was extended twice by two different territorial governments, setting the stage for a final ban in August.
The Northern Territory contains some of the world’s last intact tropical coastal and marine habitats, many of which are of national and international importance. A ban on seabed mining is welcome news, but these environments continue to face growing threats from climate change, coastal development, agricultural runoff, dams and river water extraction, overfishing and pollution. These multiple pressures interact in complex ways, generating more serious consequences that are much harder to predict than simply adding up the individual impacts.
More than 150 migratory and marine species that have been identified as endangered under territorial and Australian law. These include coastal dolphins, sea snakes, migratory waders and sawfish. Already under pressure, some marine animals may have reached their tolerance limits.
Healthy coasts, rivers, and marine life are central to the Northern Territory’s way of life, economic success, and culture. They are at the heart of two of the state’s most important economic and cultural pursuits: recreational fishing and tourism, which are based on the preservation of pristine and uncontaminated marine and coastal environments.
It is now up to the Northern Territory government to implement further policies to protect these unique and vulnerable coastal habitats. Community-specific solutions, such as Sea Country Indigenous Protected Areas and funding for Native Ranger programs and new marine parks that create tourism jobs, are key. This approach should also protect tropical rivers that feed the coastal environment and support regional economies.
A permanent ban on seafloor mining would provide strong protection for the Northern Territory coast and protect fisheries, traditional lifestyles, and regional economies. It also sends a strong signal that the Northern Territory government is prepared to confront corporate interests that threaten the future of the territory’s most valuable assets: its coastal environment and the communities that depend on it. It is now the responsibility of other jurisdictions in Australia and the rest of the world to follow suit and protect vulnerable marine ecosystems from this destructive industry.