The text on this site is presented as an archival version of the script of "Ocean Planet," a 1995 Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition. The content reflects the state of knowledge at the time of the exhibition, and has not been updated.

For thousands of years humans have viewed oceans as vast dumps for domestic, municipal, and industrial garbage--tons of sediments dredged from harbors and waterways, sewage sludge, toxic industrial by-products, even low-level radioactive waste. These materials may never become evenly diluted into a weakened mixture, and ocean processes may even concentrate some materials. Land-based alternatives for disposal also pose problems.

Except for coastal regions, the oceans remain pretty much untapped as sources of minerals and ores. Nevertheless, enormous deep-sea resources will undoubtedly attract more miners in the future, as easy-to-reach deposits on land are depleted.

Close to Home:

Sand, Gravel, and Coral

Island nations, with limited inland sources of building materials, turn to coastal sand and gravel and surrounding coral reefs, but mining can erode beaches, degrade water quality, and spoil coastal habitats §.

Collecting coral to process for lime, Solomon Islands, 1988 Mining coral removes habitat of local marine species, and weakens coastal storm defenses. Rebuilding coral takes time because colonies of tiny coral animals grow slowly. Mined or dredged areas take a very long time to recover §.
photo © Sarah Keene Meltzoff

Mining sand for landfill, Belize Sand and gravel are in demand as fill, and as an ingredient of concrete. Mining near shores may lead directly to beach erosion. Removing sand from river beds may also cause beach loss, because floods would have eventually brought that sand to beaches §.
photo © Tony Rath

Submerged Treasure:

Manganese and Other Metals Deep ocean basins are strewn with metallic nodules §. Composed mostly of manganese, they also contain nickel, copper, and cobalt. Pipelines running to ships or platforms could "vacuum" up these nodules, but no country or consortium is yet mining them, in part because of high costs compared to land-based mining §.

Mysterious manganese "marbles" lie strewn on the abyssal mud of the ocean's deepest basins. Most are larger than golf balls §. Each appears to have grown, pearl-like, around some nucleus-- perhaps a shark's tooth.

The London Convention discourages dumping at sea
The London Convention is a nickname for a United Nations administered agreement on preventing pollution produced by dumping wastes and other harmful substances at sea. This treaty classifies materials according to potential harm to marine life and humans. It bans dumping some substances and regulates dumping others §. Currently the U.S. dumps only dredged materials, although other countries still dump sewage sludge and non-toxic industrial waste §. The U.S. and other parties to the London Convention are observing a moratorium on dumping low-level radioactive waste §.

The Law of the Sea limits exploitation In November 1994, after decades of some of the most complex treaty negotiations ever, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea took effect. This "constitution for the oceans" governs sea-bed mining, environmental protection, and exploitation of natural resources, as well as jurisdiction, access to the seas, navigation, scientific research, and settlement of disputes §.

Madeleine Albright, U.S. Representative to the United Nations, signaled U.S. approval of the Law of the Sea treaty by signing the sea-bed mining provision on July 29, 1994.
photo © United Nations

More Information:

  • EPA's Office of Wetlands,Oceans, and Watersheds

    Ocean Planet Exhibition Floorplan

    gene carl feldman ( (301) 286-9428
    Judith Gradwohl, Smithsonian Institution (Curator/Ocean Planet)