Marine mining and industry

2016

A wide variety of mineral resources exist within Australia’s maritime jurisdiction (Table MAR3). Mining of these resources, however, remains an emerging industry (AIMS 2014). As a result, there is currently a low level of understanding of pressures associated with marine mining and the frameworks required to effectively manage activities within the Australian context.

The global marine mining industry is more advanced, and is supported by a growing body of research investigating likely environmental impacts and mitigation strategies (Halfar & Fujita 2002, Collins et al. 2013). On local scales, impacts are likely to be associated with sea-floor modification (dredging and mineral extraction). More regional environmental pressures are likely to be associated with dislodged sediments, which disperse as plumes, and can cover surrounding habitats and cloud the water column, reducing light and increasing the concentration of particles in the water column. Other regional pressures come from vessel activity associated with the transport of extracted materials (see Marine vessel activity for details of pressures associated with vessels).

Currently, there are no marine mining activities in Australia other than the well-established shell sandmining operation in Cockburn Sound (Western Australia) and sandmining in Moreton Bay (Queensland). Both operations were granted extraction licences by state departments, subject to strict environmental controls, particularly relating to replanting of seagrass meadows (Cockburn Sound) and sediment plumes (Moreton Bay). Other submissions made across jurisdictions to explore and potentially exploit sea-floor resources elsewhere in Australia have been rejected or stalled because of the lack of existing baseline knowledge, lack of community support, and poor understanding of the potential social and environmental impacts of such activities. No national or regional assessments of the likely impacts of marine mining activities have been conducted for Australian waters, and the impacts of marine mining activities cannot be assessed.

Table MAR3 Marine mining activities, including potential activities, in the Australian marine environment

Area

Resource

Previous activities

Current and potential activities

Nearshore (located on the continental shelf)

Sands and gravels (mobile sand bodies on the continental shelf and ancient beach deposits)

Building sands

Widespread beach replenishment using offshore sandbars

Channel deepening

Localised beach renourishment projects occur at various locations

Shell sands are being mined as a source of lime in Cockburn Sound

Building sands are extracted from Moreton Bay

Coal (seawards extension of terrestrial deposits)

Offshore black coal seams

No current activity, although brown coal extending seawards from the La Trobe Valley could potentially be mined

Heavy minerals, including mineral sands (titanium, zirconium, thorium, tungsten, gold, tin, diamond)

Exploration for mineral sands on the continental shelf has identified subeconomic deposits of titanium, tungsten, tin and diamonds

Some exploration for diamonds in Joseph Bonaparte Gulf

Tungsten mineralisation

Alluvial tin resources

No current exploration licences are active

Iron (seawards extension of terrestrial deposits)

High-grade iron ore

Feasibility is currently under review

Manganese (seawards extension of terrestrial deposits)

None

Exploration licence was granted, but a 3year moratorium has since been imposed

Copper, gold, uranium (seawards extension of terrestrial deposits)

None

Exploration licences have been granted, but no further activity

Deep ocean (located beyond the continental shelf)

Manganese–cobalt nodules and crusts

None

None in Australia, but there is considerable international interest in deposits in the central Pacific Ocean, where exploration licences are granted and controlled by the International Seabed Authority

Base metals and precious metals (copper, zinc, lead, gold, silver deposits formed by active hydrothermal vents)

None

None in Australia, but there is considerable international interest in deposits in territorial waters of a range of south-west Pacific nations. Several companies are planning to start mining operations in the next decade

Rare-earth elements (scavenged from sea water and concentrated in sea-floor clay minerals as muds)

None

None—resource is considered speculative

Evans K, Bax NJ, Smith DC (2016). Marine environment: Marine mining and industry. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/marine-environment/topic/2016/marine-mining-and-industry, DOI 10.4226/94/58b657ea7c296