Google and five other companies recently announced their plans to invest in a $300 million undersea cable called FASTER. The new FASTER cable will connect the U.S. West Coast to Japan, offering unprecedented internet speeds for countries throughout Asia.
Undersea cables like FASTER make up the backbone of the internet. Over 250 of these fiber optic cables already traverse the ocean floor. The underwater networks — which collectively span over 600,000 miles — connect entire continents and support our global world. Construction and maintenance of these underwater cables is increasing at a drastic rate as the demand for internet access and faster speeds spreads across the globe. But, how do these expansive undersea networks impact the environment?
Cables and the Environment
Undersea cables have improved drastically since their construction first began in the 1850s. Early cables needed constant maintenance and their poor installation sometimes led to the entanglement of unsuspecting whales. Today, the cables are sturdier and are typically buried within the seabed to prevent run-ins with fishing ships and marine life. Although only a few comprehensive studies exist, most seem to indicate that the cables pose a minimal risk to marine environments near the shoreline.
Much less is known about how the cables impact ecosystems and wildlife in deeper waters. These deeper waters are known to be more sensitive to environmental changes and can take longer to recover from any disturbances. Some countries have therefore begun to establish laws to protect sensitive deep-sea environments—like those containing cold-water coral.
Many researchers and lawmakers believe that cables could even help marine environments. Since the underwater networks are so crucial to our global economy, Australia and New Zealand have begun establishing protective zones around the cables. The zones prohibit fishing and other marine activities to prevent cable damage. The hope is that these protective areas will double as marine wildlife sanctuaries. It’s too soon to tell if these inadvertent preserves have helped improve ecosystems or marine wildlife biodiversity. However, it’s likely that more countries will adopt cable protection zones as the underwater networks continue to expand.
Cables and the Law
Despite their apparent minimal environmental impact, the laws surrounding cables trouble many lawmakers and scientists. A single cable can extend past the shorelines of multiple countries and even venture into international waters beyond a coastal state’s jurisdiction. This means that the environmental laws governing a lengthy cable’s construction and maintenance can quickly become complex.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea divides expansive oceans into different zones based on distance away from the shoreline of a coastal state. A state has more rights and control over zones that are closest to its shoreline. There are few provisions under this law that affect cables crossing multiple zones. For example, one article charges states with the general responsibility to protect and preserve the marine environment. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is one tool that states use to meet this obligation.
EIAs examine how a proposed development project — like cable construction — will impact the environment and marine life. These EIAs can be a powerful tool, but not all coastal states require the assessments for cable construction. The level of detail and quality of data can also vary drastically between countries. North America, Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia and Africa have well-established protocols for environmental assessments. In the United States for example, cables proposed in marine sanctuaries undergo extensive review by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. In addition to typical EIAs, companies have to provide a detailed analysis why cable construction within the sanctuary is the best option.
Everything becomes even more complicated in international waters. “Modern conservation norms such as environmental impact assessment, marine protected areas, marine spatial planning and development mechanisms … are underdeveloped in [marine areas beyond national jurisdiction]” writes Robin Warner, an associate professor with the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security at the University of Wollongong in a recent report.
Warner is one of several experts advocating to incorporate changes into the current international law framework for conservation in international waters. An informal United Nations working group studying the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction (The UN BBNJ Working Group) is at the center of these efforts. The hope for the group — which was formed almost a decade ago — is that implementing more comprehensive laws will better protect marine wildlife in international waters.
The FASTER cable and the Future
How will all of this affect the FASTER cable? The cable will connect the U.S. West Coast with Japan, but specifics about its route haven’t been released yet. The cable will likely travel through international waters along with waters under the jurisdiction of several Asian coastal states. This means that Nippon Electric Company — the supplier contracted to build the undersea cable — will have to navigate complicated overlapping environmental laws. How the company chooses to plan and construct the cable in areas with fewer environmental laws will help set the tone for future development projects.
Planning and construction for FASTER is expected to begin shortly and the cable should be ready for use in the second quarter of 2016.
This article was originally published at The Wildlife Society, August 29, 2014.