The Hidden Gem was scheduled to dock in Honolulu Harbor, but it never arrived as demonstrators gathered nearby.

A group of Hawaiian elders, voyagers, cultural practitioners and activists used the expected arrival of a deep-sea mining vessel this week in waters off Oahu to decry international plans that might soon open vast areas of the ocean floor to commercial extraction.

That mining ship, the Hidden Gem, did not dock at Honolulu Harbor late Thursday morning even though it had been scheduled to do so on the state’s harbor traffic website 

Instead, a marine tracking tool showed the vessel motoring west and away from Oahu right around the time a demonstration at Sand Island featuring master navigator Nainoa Thompson, environmental advocate Sol Kaho‘ohalahala, Maui waterman Archie Kalepa and cultural practitioner Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu got underway.

Nainoa Thompson of the Polynesian Voyaging Society spoke at a Sand Island event to raise awareness of the plans to mine the deep-sea for elements such as nickel, manganese, copper and cobalt just outside Hawaii’s waters as environmental advocate Sol Kaho‘ohalahala listens. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“That ship never came in. So in many ways you guys won today,” Thompson told a gathering of around 70 activists, including several from the environmental group Greenpeace, as the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hikianalia floated behind them in Keehi Lagoon. 

Officials with The Metals Co., a Vancouver-based company that used the Hidden Gem last year for deep-sea mining trials, did not directly address the change in schedule.

The ship “made a crew change in Hawaii and left,” Metals Co. spokesman Dan Porras said in an email Friday. The company said in a statement that it knew of the Honolulu protest and was committed to “an inclusive approach that respects the perspectives and rights of all communities.”

At Thursday’s demonstration, the Hawaiian elders echoed the concerns of many conservation groups around the globe that not enough is yet known about how the undersea mining for polymetallic nodules would impact the oceans’ ecology. 

Those nodules’ value and demand have spiked in recent years because the metals they contain could be used for batteries and other components in the growing clean-energy industry. According to The Metals Co., the Hidden Gem was used last year to extract some 4,500 tons of the nodules and store 3,000 of those tons in its hold.

The vessel is next scheduled to dock in Mokpo, Korea, according to data on MarineTraffic.com.

An image of The Hidden Gem's cargo hold and some 3,000 tons of polymetallic nodules collected from the sea floor during mining trials in 2022.
An screenshot of an image on The Metals Co.’s website shows the Hidden Gem’s cargo hold and some 3,000 tons of polymetallic nodules collected from the sea floor during mining trials in 2022. (Courtesy: The Metals Co.)

The protest at Sand Island came as the international community continues to hash out rules through the United Nations that could soon open up a vast nodule-rich swathe of the Pacific between Hawaii and Mexico called the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone. 

That 1.7 million-square-mile area contains “trillions” of the potato-sized nodules but is also home to many unique marine species, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The UN’s International Seabed Authority, or ISA, made “very good progress” during its latest meetings this fall in Kingston, Jamaica, to advance regulations for the Clarion-Clipperton Zone to advance commercial mining regulations there, according to the conservation news outlet Mongabay.

The Debate Over How To Proceed

At least 20 countries have called for either a ban or a moratorium on seabed mining, and companies such as BMW and Samsung have pledged not to use minerals mined from the deep sea, The Associated Press reported ahead of the ISA’s fall meeting.

In the U.S., Hawaii Congressman Ed Case introduced a bill in July that would place a moratorium on deep-sea mining in American waters and stop U.S. companies from doing such mining until the environmental impacts are better understood. That bill remains in the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Case also introduced a bill to have the U.S. oppose any international deep-sea mining efforts until the president certifies that the UN’s International Seabed Authority has created a “suitable regulatory framework” to protect those ocean-floor environments.

The Hidden Gem
A screenshot of the Hidden Gem from the website of the offshore energy company Allseas shows the vessel outfitted for deep-sea mining. (Courtesy: Allseas)

More recently, however, 30 of Case’s Republican colleagues sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urging the Pentagon to explore deep-sea mining as a means to combat China’s domination of the global supply chain for mineral resources.

In Hawaii, a bill introduced in the Legislature last year to ban seabed mining in state waters was carried over to the upcoming 2024 session, which starts in January.

While a ban in the state’s jurisdiction — waters out to 3 miles from shore — would only cover a small area of ocean territory, Kaho‘ohalahala said it would nonetheless send a significant message to the larger international community.

“Any support that comes from this perspective of caring for the deep sea is important,” he said.

Kaho‘ohalahala said that he’s previously addressed ISA meetings as a general observer. When doing that, he evoked the Kumulipo, the traditional Hawaiian creation chant, whose early lines, he said, point to life originating from energy in the sea depths. 

“To imagine that we’re now going to delve into that place of our creation and destroy it cannot be. If we destroy the ocean, we destroy our life. We cannot allow these types of practices,” he told the activists gathered Thursday.

The Metals Co., meanwhile, said in its statement that deep-sea mining practices “represent an opportunity to provide an abundant supply of battery metals for the energy transition with the least social and environmental impact.”

The company added that Greenpeace has tried to disrupt the research that would shed light on how the mining impacts the ocean floor.

A New York Times investigation into The Metals Co. last year found that it gained access to data on the most valuable zones to mine that was instead supposed to be shared with small island states, and that the company now stands to earn some $31 billion from the mining over a 25-year period.

That potential for profit from the mining has generated further skepticism and concern among some Native Hawaiians and others in the local community.

“As Indigenous people of the sea, our role, our responsibility is to protect that. To be the voice of those that cannot speak, of things that live beneath the sea,” Kalepa said at Thursday’s demonstration. “If we cannot protect that, then who are we?”

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by The Healy Foundation, the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

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