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By Michael J. Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (February 15, Agence France-Presse)---A discovery that commercially exploitable quantities of manganese, iron, zinc, copper and gold are lying on the South Pacific Ocean seabed might force nations to speed up the complex process of claiming their continental shelf.

Scientists in Australia, France and New Zealand are locating "black smokers" or volcanic vents in the ocean belching out mineral rich fluids which solidify to form large deposits on the seabed.

New Zealand's Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences last month said their discoveries in waters north of the country "represent the most exciting mineral prospect since gold was first discovered in New Zealand."

The Institut Francais de Recherche pour l'Exploitation de la Mer research ship L'Atalante has located black smokers in between Tonga and Fiji.

Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) said they have found huge deposits in the Bismarck Sea in Papua New Guinea. That find has already attracted commercial interest with a PNG-registered company, Nautilus Minerals Corporation, granted an exploration license.

Dr. Ray Binns of CSIRO's Division of Exploration and Mining told Agence France-Presse (AFP) the discoveries could put a lot of heat on politicians and diplomats. There has got to be a lot of work done," he said.

New Zealand scientists worry that the black smokers are being discovered in areas of the Pacific beyond the 360 kilometer (200 mile) exclusive economic zones (EEZ). Claiming them could depend on who does the science, and officials note that the French and the Japanese have been in first.

"It you don't do the work you cannot make the claim," one scientist said.

The United Nations Law of the Sea requires states to eventually define their Continental Shelf boundaries, which are often beyond that of the EEZ.

New Zealand has until 2006 to lodge its Continental Shelf claim.

Ian Lamont, one of 21 commissioners on the UN Commission on the Outer Limits of the Continental Shelf, said countries must make their claims or see control and access of unclaimed areas, known in UN speak as "The Area," go under the control of the International Seabed Authority.

"Countries have got to make their claims, or lose them," Lamont said. "Some countries will have to get themselves into gear."

Early evidence suggests one of the richest black smoker locations is in unclaimed South Pacific waters which could be claimed or counter-claimed by Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, France, Australia and New Zealand.

New Zealand has begun a detailed "desktop study" of its likely claims, dealing with areas which overlap Australian claims. One area, Three Kings Rise between New Zealand and Norfolk Island, may be mineral rich.

Tonga has a habit of routinely claiming any volcano that rises above sea level despite the fact that they often sink below the water again. Some of the claims could technically belong to Fiji rather than Tonga.

Lamont noted that the claiming of a continental shelf border was immensely complicated, involving geology and law. Among the criteria, one can identify the foot of the slope of the continental shelf and go seaward 60 nautical miles (111 kilometers) and declare that a boundary. But if the sediment on the bottom is of a greater thickness the line can go out further, sediment being an indication of hydrocarbons. Water depth and total distance from the coast are also factors.

"A country can use any of the criteria and will use that which is to the greatest advantage," he said.

The problem for countries in the South Pacific is that meeting the criteria will involve expensive hydrographic and scientific work.

To date very little work has been done, leaving Pacific countries open to the prospect of losing access to as yet unrealized riches.

Michael J Field Agence France-Presse Auckland, New Zealand TEL: (64 21) 688438 FAX: (64 21) 694035 E-MAIL:

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