EXTRACTIVE INDUSTRIES

Researchers raise alarm over species-rich Norwegian fjord’s future

Residents and activists near a planned open-pit mine in Norway have long argued fjord waste disposal would smother a unique marine habitat. Now they have the biodiversity surveys to prove it.

Førdefjord, looking west. Photo: Jay Richardson
Jay Richardson

by Jay Richardson

18 October 2023

In a fjord in Western Norway, where a mining company plans to dispose of up to 170 million tonnes of finely ground waste rock and process chemicals, marine scientists have found new evidence of one of the most biodiverse seafloor habitats on the country’s southwestern coast.

Nordic Mining’s open-pit Engebø mine is now under construction and projected to open in 2024. The company has permits to dispose of waste known as ‘tailings’ in the nearby Førdefjord, one of Norway’s 29 protected National Salmon Fjords, throughout the mine’s projected 39-year lifespan. The waste would gradually cover up to 4.4 square kilometres of fjord floor, burying and suffocating animals that live and feed on its organic sediments and are themselves food for larger species.

Local residents said a waste deposit in the fjord would destroy a seascape whose marine wildlife has sustained their families over generations, and would end a way of life made possible by the fjord’s rich ecology.

“Large and rich ecosystem”

Norway’s Institute of Marine Research (IMR), a partly government-funded marine science institution and one of the largest of its kind in Europe, conducted extensive surveys of fjord and coastal ecology alongside the University of Bergen over 300 km of the southwestern Norwegian coast in late 2021 and early 2022. The planned waste disposal area scored highest out of 18 fjord floor trawl sites on an index of biodiversity, and a site at the western edge of Førdefjord also scored amongst the highest of all sites.

Nordic Mining did not respond to a request for comment on the research findings.

Mountains southeast of the mining site, with Førdefjord at foreground. Photo: Jay Richardson

Protests and lawsuits

Lars Gunnar Thingnes, a sheep farmer from Vevring, a village on the western edge of the mining site, said he had fished in the fjord since early childhood. Like many in Vevring, if or when the mine opens, he plans to leave. “It means everything. Much of the reason to live here is because of the fjord,” he explained. “If [the mining] continues, we can’t go fishing, and it’s not fun to go to the fjord in a boat. It will just be sad.”

60 local businesses in Sogn og Fjordane, the same county as the mine, have petitioned against the project. A verdict is pending on a lawsuit against the Norwegian government, disputing the evidence basis for the permits, by Friends of the Earth Norway and Young Friends of the Earth Norway. The EU authority responsible for enforcing its Free Trade Agreement with Norway is now investigating whether the practice of sub-marine tailings disposal, for which Norway is one of only a handful of countries to have granted new licences in recent decades, violates water quality laws.

The Norwegian Fishers’ Association has said sea tailings “pose a significant risk” to the fjord environment and raised questions over seafood safety and the protection of spawning and nursery areas in complaints to the Norwegian Environment Agency and Mining Directorate.

Jan Henrik Sandberg, a Senior Advisor at the Norwegian Fishers’ Association, said: “By principle, you shouldn’t destroy breeding areas. If you destroy a breeding area, it could have a much wider effect. It could reduce the fish stocks in the whole region. The most important spawning or breeding area for coastal cod in the region is where you will have the dumping area for mining waste and chemicals.”

Potential biodiversity loss

The research voyage produced the first scientifically documented catch of spawning blue ling, a deep-water fish listed as highly threatened on the Norwegian Red List since 2006, in a Norwegian fjord. Blue ling is benthopelagic, meaning it feeds by hovering just above the fjord floor, in the area likely to be worst affected by mining waste.

Terje van der Meeren, a researcher at IMR, said: “It is not surprising that we find a large and rich ecosystem in the Førdefjord. But there is an even greater diversity of species than what we have been able to document before.” Researchers and fishers have found dozens of distinct species of marine life inside the planned disposal area, including the red-listed species bamboo coral, spiny dogfish, and common redfish along with blue ling. IMR has said the fjord may have its own genetically distinct population of roundnose grenadier, a widespread deep-water fish.

A starfish from Førdefjord. Photo by Jay Richardson

For many residents in Vevring, life all but revolves around the fjord. Vilde, a 16-year-old from the village, said: “When you grow up fishing a lot, you get a kind of relationship with the animals. There’s so much life there [in the fjord]. The Oslofjord is ruined, and they’re spending millions to repair it—and at the same time, they ruin another fjord. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Rosi, 22, added: “If we’re not protecting the fjords in Norway, then I don’t know who will.”

Red-listed species

IMR has criticised environmental impact assessments commissioned by Nordic Mining for relying on inappropriate species survey methods and for lacking detail on the potential impact of nanoparticles and toxic process chemicals like sodium isobutyl xanthate (SIBX).

Senior Advisor Jan Henrik Sandberg, from the Norwegian Fishers’ Association, said: “The impact assessment was, in our opinion, not very trustworthy.”

IMR has warned of potential impacts on migration for wild salmon and sea trout, which pass through the fjord to the river Nausta, one of Norway’s most celebrated sites for salmon fishing.

Eiliv Erdal is a dairy farmer from the nearby village of Naustdal and leads the Association of Norwegian Salmon River Owners for the Nausta, where he hosts salmon fishing tourists. Erdal said a fjord waste deposit would add “an extra dimension on a highly tuned ecosystem.”

“I grew up fishing,” said Erdal, a board member for Norwegian Salmon Rivers. “I’m worried [the mining project] will ruin a perfectly pristine fjord. And I’m shocked that we don’t have a government which listens to the experts.

“I used to swim in the fjord, and my kids do. We catch a lot of fish in the fjord. It’s a big part of our diet. That means something, and that’s my legacy.

“I would like Mr Barth Eide [former Norwegian Minister for Climate and the Environment] to come here and explain where I’m going to catch my fish, and where my kids are going to catch their fish, in ten years, twenty years, thirty years.”

Risking an oxygen-rich habitat

IMR describes the waters at the floor of fjords in Western Norway as “relatively oxygen-rich.” Deeper layers of water normally exchange with the Norwegian Sea every one to two years.

Ole-Erik Thingnes, an electrician from Vevring, said: “People who live here are used to living with nature and of nature. I’ve spent most of my life in a boat. The whole fjord, from the bottom to the top, is one ecological system. It’s all connected. And if you kill the bottom, what happens to the rest?

“It truly is a sad thing that Norway leads the way in destroying all life in large parts of the ocean for many generations to come. It makes me very, very sad.”

Small particles from mine tailings can stick to cod and haddock eggs and make them sink, decreasing their survival rates. Sea sponges and other essential ecosystem components like krill, a critical food source for fish, can ingest particles from mine tailings, and have shown decreased survival and growth rates with increasing concentrations of mine tailings.

IMR’s results echo a 2007 survey by the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA) for Nordic Mining, which characterised Førdefjord’s marine life as “quite rich compared to other western fjords.”

In an interview earlier this year, Nordic Mining CEO Ivar Fossum said the company will publish monitoring data during mining operations, but did not specify what the data would measure, nor how often. A company-selected “resource group” that “has the competence to understand some of these data” would be given a different level of access, he said, than the general public. Fossum repeatedly said Nordic Mining “will try to be as transparent as we can on these monitoring results.”

“I’m not living here because of a mine or a dead fjord,” said Ole-Erik Thingnes. “I’m living here because of nature and a live fjord, and everything else, of course. Why should I keep living here if none of the things I like are here any more?” º

This article was updated on 19 October to remove the claim that IMR had warned of potential impacts on migration for sturgeon, which we incorrectly translated from the word ‘vinterstøinger’. We apologise for the error.

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