On August 9th, the Mexican government, through the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT, Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales) published the Marine Use Arrangement for the North Pacific (MUANP; Programa de Ordenamiento Ecológico Marino y Regional del Pacífico Norte). The MUANP, like the General Arrangement before it, organizes Mexico´s territory, identifies priority areas for conservation and is mainly used for planning and defining policy for using the country’s territories and natural resources. Just like the General Arrangement defined policy for Mexico´s inland territory, the MUANP stipulates the guidelines and policies for sustainable use of existing natural resources of the coastal areas and ocean waters of the Baja California and Baja California Sur region. According to the Program, its goal is to “maximize consensus among sectors and minize environmental conflicts, [while] favor[ing] sustainable development of the area.”
Environmental Arrangement is an umbrella term referring to a series of actions whose main goal is to evaluate an design environmental policies that try to maximize the exploitation of natural resources while preserving the environment. It involves identifying areas, their natural, social and economic components, identifying the interests of the sectors involved and trying to reach a consensus among opposing interests. Prior to the MUANP, three arrangements have been issued: a General Territory Arrangement; a Marine Use Arrangement for the Gulf of California and, a Marine Use Arrangement for the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Additionally, several local and regional arrangement plans have been issued nationwide.
The process to Arrange the North Pacific marine region began in 2009 with an interagency coordination agreement between the Ministries of the Interior (SEGOB, Secretaría de Gobernación); Marines (SEMAR, Secretaría de Marina); Social Development (SEDESOL, Secretaría de Desarrollo Social); Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT, Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales); Energy (SENER, Secretaría de Energía); Economy (SE, Secretaría de Energía); Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SEMARNAP, Secretaría de Agricultura, Ganadería, Desarrollo Rural, Pesca y Alimentación); Communications and Transporation (SCT, Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Transporte); Turism (SECTUR, Secretaría de Turismo), as well as Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), The Federal Electricity Commission (CFE, Comisión Federal de Electricidad), as well as the states of Baja California and Baja California Sur. Soon afterwards, the Committe for Ecological Organization was established (Comité de Organización Ecológica), composed of representatives of the aforementioned agencies, as well as representatives of Municipal governments and members of civil society from the industrial fishing, coastal fishing, mining, tourism, aquaculture, agriculture and conservation sectors.
During 2012 and 2014, technical studies took place, which studied the current state of the area and forecasted the social, environmental and governance issues which were likely to arise. Likewise, it identified the environmental conflicts and identified priority areas for conservation.
Area covered by the MUANP
The program covers the marine and insular area of Mexico’s Exclusive Economic Zone and the western coastal front of the states of Baja California and Baja California Sur. It covers over 800 thousand km2 of ocean and over 56 thousand km2 of marine coast. Since the program covers an inland extension of approximately 20km on the western slope of both states, it partially includes parts of the municipalities of Tijuana, Playas del Rosarito, Ensenada, Comondú, Mulegé, La Paz and Los Cabos.
The program organizes the region into 60 Environmental Mangement Units (UGA, Unidades de Gestión Ambiental). Each unit covers a specific area and defines the environmental guidelines and strategies that apply to the unit, including territorial use and use of natural resources. The largest of these are 11 marine units which cover an area of more than 811 thousand km2 or approximately 93% of the organized area.
Like the General Arrangement before it, the MUANP is part of the Mexican government`s efforts to organize its land and provide guidelines and policy regarding conservation of natural habitats and the use of the country’s land and natural resources. By arranging the open waters of the states of Baja California and Baja California Sur and recognizing, among others, the potential for seabed mining, it opens the possibility for this activity to take place.
The MUANP’s Guidelines
The MUANP addresses the policies and guidelines that apply in any given Environmental Management Unit. In this next section, we summarize what we consider as the most relevant policies as outlined in the MUANP and aimed at seabed mining. Following the approach used by the MUANP, we divide and classify these as Biodiversity Strategies, Water Criteria and Biodiversity Criteria.
EB06 – Implementation of Comprehensive Conservation Strategies
Strategy EB06 calls for the implementation of comprehensive conservation strategies, including: 1) deveoping an inventory of deep sea ecosystems considered a priority, 2) developing a monitoring program of deep sea ecosystems considered a priority, and 3) implementing protective measures for deep sea ecosystems considered a priority.
Ninety-three percent of the area covered by the MUANP is considered deep sea. Five percent of which is considered a priority for biodiversity conservation. Since the seabed has a considerable potential for mining and fishing activities, the protection of priority areas requires the generation of more information regarding the distribution, threats and conservation status of these areas.
EB08 – Establish Protected Natural Area in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone
Strategy EB08 calls for a technical study on the relevance of establishing a protected natural area in the Exclusive Economic Zone that borders the Environmental Sanctuary Zone proposed by the International Seabed Authority in international waters of the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone. The goal of establishing the protected area is to conserve deepsea biodiversity. This measure would restrict mining activities in the area.
EB10 – Need for Regulatory Framework for Deep Sea Mining
Strategy EB10 calls for coordination between authorities to formulate a Deep Sea Mining Law that combines the Code for Environmental Management of Marine Mining as well as the International Seabed Authority’s guidelines.
EB25 – Network of Protected Natural Areas
Strategy EB25 calls for a suitability assesment on creating a network of protected natural areas to improve marine ecosystems by distributing risk in case of localized distaster, climate change or management failures.
CA13: Water Quality Preservation.-
Metal ore mining should not reduce the availability or quality of water in terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems. Metal ore mining, particularly open-pit mining, has potential impacts on the quality and quantity of water in coastal ecosystems, due to: 1) collection and channeling of surface water; 2) extraction of groundwater; and 3) contamination by toxic leachates and solid waste. Avoiding water quality and quantity reduction will benefit the tourist, urban, fishing and aquaculture sectors in the coastal and marine ecosystems.
CB17 – Environmental Impact Studies
Deepsea mining activities should avoid environmental impacts on the habitat´s functional integrity. Environmental baseline studies based and environmental impact evaluations based on the Code for Environmental Management of Marine Mining as well as the International Seabed Authority’s regulations and recommendations are required. Deepsea Mining Activities will only be allowed when they can: 1) avoid impacting the population and habitat of at-risk and priority species for conservation; and, 2) avoid causing bioaccumulation effects and biomagnificaiton of heavy metals in food webs which put public health at risk due to the consumption of contaminated fish products.
CB29 – Loggerhead Turtle Mortality
Mining activities should avoid loggerhead turtle mortality; therefore, activities must avoid altering, directly or indirectly, the functional integrity of the Gulf of Ulloa’s ecosystems, which maintains the turtle development habitat and the turtle aggretation phenomenon.
CB31: Mining activities on the seabed should not generate sublethal effects on priority species.
Seabed mining should not generate sublethal effects on priority species. Therefore, any work or activity related to the extraction of seabed minerals should not alter, directly or indirectly, the functional integrity areas of high biological productivity of neritic ecosystems.
Sublethal effects are considered any changes in behavior, physiological costs and reduction of food sources that increase mortality. In deepsea mining, these can refer to changes in behavior and physiological costs associated to intraoceanic noise of anthropogenic origin, seabed removal, disposal of dredged material and brine discharge in critical habitats; 2) Reduction of food sources by: a) removal of pelagic organisms and benthic communities and, b) increase in turbidity and heavy metal suspension.
The issue of seabed mining and deepsea mining in the area regulated by the MUANP has been highly controversial in the last decade. Since 2014, Exploraciones Oceánicas, a subsidiary of US based Odyssey Marine Explorations, has tried to obtain government approval for phosphate mining off the coast of Baja California and Baja California Sur, in Mexico´s exclusive economic zone. A project which has been denied approval in three different occasions.
Critics state that seabed dredging activities could put loggerhead turtles, already an endangered species, in much greater risk. Additionally, critics state that increased noise from the dredging ships will impact gray whale migration patterns and mating. The project has also faced opposition from local fishermen, who have expressed concerns regarding the project´s impacts on fishing activities, which is an important part of the regional economy.
The possibility of mining the area has caused NGO’s, such as the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA, Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente) to intervene and denounce the project (see, for example, https://bit.ly/2wuVhN5). Additionally, the Government of Baja California Sur opposed the project stating that the project´s approval could potentially cause a fishing embargo by the USA since NOAA had given Mexico a negative certification for failing to adopt a regulatory program comparable to the one employed in the USA to combat by-catch of loggerhead turtle in the Gulf of Ulloa.
In summary, the MUANP lays the foundation for regulating economic activities in the coast of Baja California and Baja Californai Sur. It opens the doors to the possibility of seabed mining in Mexico. These zoning efforts are the first step and the program recognizes the need for more action, including ecological characterization and the establishment of an ecological inventory. A proper regulatory framework that incorporates international guidelines is essential, but depends on the actions of Congress. With the current legislature ending and a new leftist majority coming in, it is uncertain when or if this issue will be given due-consideration.
Given the current state of things, it would not be far fetched to say that without a proper regulatory framework, and given the controversies seabed mining has caused in both Bajas, the MUANP will likely cause conflicts in its implementation. Nonetheless, it lays the foundation for a topic that has gained traction in the last couple of years and which the country cannot ignore. The MUANP also acts as a baseline for all sea-based activities, a baseline which had been lacking. We hope that a proper regulatory framework and dispute settlement mechanisms are established shortly.