Suva, Fiji – With fisheries as Kiribati’s main economic resource for a growing population, there is an imperative to find other income sources.
“This is where seabed mineral exploration and mining is important,” said Mr Tearinaki Tanielu, a Geologist, working as the Minerals Officer for the Kiribati Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources Development.
“As a nation we are working toward adding more prosperity for people to make their lives better, but at the same time with little or no impact on our environment.”
He said that on a global level, seabed systems are not fully understood, and that there are policy and knowledge gaps that need to be addressed, adding greater complexity to the whole issue, and that it would be necessary for Kiribati to first develop technical and scientific knowledge and the appropriate policies so that the country has the capacity to undertake deep seabed mineral exploration and exploitation.
For these reasons, Mr Tanielu sees the country’s on-going association with the SPC/SOPAC the Division as a way to tap into forty years of experience in ocean scientific research, as well as be involved in the development of policy frameworks for deep seabed mineral exploration and mining. Frameworks are being developed as a part of the four-year European Union-funded Deep Seabed Minerals Project.
“Yes, of course we see the economic potential of deep seabed minerals, but at the same time we have to protect what has been there for millions of years, and that our ancestors have depended on for thousands of years,” he said.
“It is also important to include our cultural knowledge as a complement to scientific knowledge. Local fishermen are aware that any disturbances to the deep seabed may impact upon the environment, and therefore upon their fish supplies and livelihoods.
“There is the confirmed existence of manganese nodules and cobalt crusts in our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Line Islands. We plan to have more exploration there, but we want to do this in an environmentally sound way,” said Mr Tanielu.
A country’s EEZ extends to 200 nautical miles from the shoreline, but when a country is comprised of groups of islands, (an archipelago), the EEZ may be calculated from the outer edges of that group.
Mr Tanielu said that previous studies, undertaken in the 1960s through to the 1990s, provide useful baseline data, although the area studied is small in comparison with Kiribati’s EEZ.
“But in taking the direction of deep seabed minerals, we still have to be mindful of protecting our ocean because of the great connection the people of Kiribati have; for thousands of years our people have been people of the sea.
Mr Tanielu said that it was with protection of the environment for future generations in mind, that the Kiribati government created the second-largest marine protected area in the world, in 2006. This was recognised as a World Heritage Site in 2010.
“By conserving an area around the Phoenix Islands group, Kiribati has set a standard for the global community,” said Mr Tanielu.
Creating the MPA was a significant move that puts the abundant fish stocks out of reach as a commercial resource, and also precludes the possible exploration and exploitation of the mineral resources within the marine protected area (MPA).
As the Phoenix Islands are uninhabited, there has been minimal human disturbance in this area, making the MPA a gift to researchers worldwide when they are studying human impacts on environments.
Mr Tanielu said that the MPA is rich in its diversity of corals and fish species. As a protected area, it could become a spawning ground for fish that migrate to other marine areas that have depleted fish populations as a result of being over-exploited.
Although the MPA is equal in size to the state of California, it is only a portion of the area making up Kiribati’s EEZ. And Mr Tanielu believes that “it makes sense from a geological point of view to make use of this large EEZ we have been blessed with, but to do so with a minimum amount of disturbance to our environment.”