Mud City Press


A Film Written and Directed by Michael Stocks


Exploiting the Ocean Floor

Camera by Thomas Aigner, Christian Rohwer and Ron Columbus; Edited by Peter Hillebrand; Audio by Andreas Bosch and Till Pietsch

(A Deutsche Welle Documentary, Released in United States June 2023, Running time 86 minutes)

Reviewed by Frank Kaminski

Michael Stocks' documentary Deep Sea Greed: Exploiting the Ocean Floor looks at three of the major threats facing Earth's marine ecosystem: deep-sea mining, sand harvesting and overfishing. Unfortunately, its coverage of these topics is uneven, heavily favoring deep-sea mining while giving much less screen time to the other two, equally important issues.

The opening scene takes us aboard a ship in the middle of the Pacific called the Normand Energy. This ship has been chartered by the Belgian deep-sea mining company Global Sea Mineral Resources, which is about to test Patania II, a robot built to find and collect polymetallic nodules. These are small rocks scattered across the seafloor that contain manganese, nickel, cobalt, copper and other metals vital for driving the clean energy transition–particularly in the production of batteries for electric vehicles and renewable energy storage systems. The region in which Patania II is being deployed, the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, is rich in polymetallic nodules but is also ecologically sensitive.

A movie

We hear from the company's head of sustainability, who acknowledges the need to further study the ecological effects of seabed mining but emphasizes that all mining comes with impacts. She adds that since we must transition away from fossil fuels for the sake of the climate, and since doing so will be metals-intensive, we have to turn to seabed mining.

We then meet scientists aboard another vessel called Island Pride, bound to rendezvous with the Normand Energy. Their mission is to explore the largely uncharted ecology of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone and assess the potential environmental impacts of Patania II. We get fascinating glimpses of equipment fitted with state-of-the-art sensors, and we tag along for some exciting discoveries, including what may be a previously undocumented starfish species. The scientists speak passionately about the significance of their research and their concerns about the feasibility of deep-sea mining.

Soon a third party enters the fray. Greenpeace activists approach the Normand Energy on a high-powered inflatable raft and paint "RISK" in bold yellow lettering on its hull. During a subsequent virtual live conference, they challenge the Island Pride scientists, accusing them of insufficient scientific rigor in assessing Patania II's impacts. Reactions vary among the scientists–some dismiss the accusations, while others show empathy toward the activists' concerns.

The film then turns to Michael Lodge, secretary-general of the International Seabed Authority, who says he sees an extraordinary opportunity ahead, namely the chance to establish seabed mining regulations preemptively. "We have an opportunity to get it right before [mining] even starts, which is unprecedented," Lodge says.

The events at Clarion-Clipperton are intercut with another story set on the archipelago of Cape Verde, Africa, where commercial sand extraction has stripped beaches down to rocks and pebbles. Loggerhead turtles, which require sand to lay their eggs, now struggle to find nesting sites and often return to sea without laying their eggs. Ana Veiga, founder of the conservation group Lantuna, leads efforts to help the turtles and raise community awareness about their plight, along with the importance of marine conservation in general.

The film takes us to one particular community where Lantuna has helped paint beautiful public murals promoting marine conservation. We also visit a protected area Lantuna has set up for Loggerhead turtle eggs on one of the remaining sandy beaches. The group monitors the eggs to keep them safe from predators and releases hatched turtles into the ocean. Again, this is all good stuff, but because it doesn't receive the screen time given to deep-sea mining,it can't help feeling tacked on.

The documentary also introduces a late storyline set aboard a small fishing boat in the western Baltic Sea. There we meet the owners of a father-and-son sustainable fishing company that has been impacted by severe overfishing at the hands of large-scale commercial enterprises. We learn that the Baltic's cod and herring have been so depleted that the European Union has placed near-total prohibitions on the harvesting of both. The family business has adapted by shifting its focus away from cod and herring and toward fish like mackerel, turbot and plaice, which it harvests sustainably.

We see how father and son reduce bycatch through methods such as a beeping device that wards off porpoises. We learn how their business is adversely affected by EU regulations designed for larger operations, which fail to consider the nuanced realities faced by smaller ones such as theirs.

The film goes on to reveal that one-third of all fish stocks are overfished, supported by billions in subsidies. It highlights a damning Greenpeace investigation exposing the persistent use of drift nets–termed 'walls of death' for their staggering bycatch rates–despite their illegality. And it laments that even when perpetrators are caught, prosecutions are challenging given that individual nations lack jurisdiction beyond their own waters. (However, the film closes with a hopeful update on this front, namely that in March 2023, the members of the United Nations agreed to a treaty pledging to protect the world's oceans by extending their conservation efforts beyond national boundaries.)

Some of the film's keenest insights come from an interview with Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of legendary ocean explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau. Particularly poignant is her warning about the irreversibility of exponential loss: "At a certain point you reach tipping points where you have exponential loss, and that's hard to come back from."

Deep Sea Greed suffers not only from uneven coverage of its main topics but also from unnecessary repetition. We're told twice that oceans cover 71 percent of Earth's surface, that Alexandra Cousteau is Jacques Cousteau's granddaughter, and that Loggerhead turtles reach sexual maturity and come ashore to lay their eggs at the age of 20. Luckily, these three instances represent the bulk of the repetition; they're a few stray editing gaffes that blunt the film's impact but don't compromise it.

Despite its flaws, the documentary is filled with quality visuals, strong writing and insightful interviews. Its coverage of the still-little-known issue of sand depletion is commendable, even if disproportionate compared to its coverage of deep-sea mining; ditto its reminder about the ongoing depletion of marine fish stocks.


If you enjoyed this review, you might find THE SIEGE OF SYRACUSE an engaging read.

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