This Is Not a Goldmine: Capital, Conservation, and the Politics of Recruitment in the Deep Bismarck Sea

New Ireland Sharkcaller. Photo by author.

Editorial Note: This post is part of our series highlighting the work of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2018 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists. We asked them to outline the argument they made in their submission and to situate their work in relation to the field of environmental anthropology.

By Patrick Nason, Columbia University §

Ifremeria nautilei samples from the Olga 2 Expedition. From Bojar et al. 2018.

ABSTRACT: From the bottom of the Bismarck Sea in Papua New Guinea rise two volcanic peaks. The smaller of the two, known as Suzette, is the proposed site of world’s first deep seabed mine. The larger peak, South Su, has been reserved by the mining company as a “natural conservation unit” to offset the impending destruction of its smaller neighbor. This paper examines the multiple forces involved in marking one mountain for mining, the other for mitigation, and the combined Solwara 1 project as a form of sustainable development. I begin with an explication of the term recruitment as it is deployed by biological oceanographers to describe a process of colonization of one seamount by current-borne animals from elsewhere. Next, I draw on ethnographic and archival research conducted in Papua New Guinea (PNG) between 2015 and 2017 to describe a complex act of recruitment involving scientists, mining company officials, and the larvae of a newly-discovered deepwater snail known as Ifremeria nautilei. I argue that the recruitment of this unique animal’s life history by scientists has itself become the epistemic ground of a public assertion by the mining company that Solwara 1 is not a goldmine, but is rather an experiment in making development sustainable. What has emerged is a seemingly apolitical project—one that has become difficult to confront through either an ethically or aesthetically-driven environmentalist resistance. However, a closer examination of the politics of recruitment associated with Solwara 1 reveals a symbiotic moment of capitalism and conservation, one in which a particular but universalized vision of the human future is grounded on speculations of how a humble snail moves from one mountain to the next.

Sharks, Snails, and Deep-Space Others

My paper, “This is Not a Goldmine,” examines how biological oceanographers working in conjunction with a multinational mining company have recruited the life history of a deepwater snail as “local knowledge” in order to demarcate deep-sea territory. Ignorant of enduring human connections to the site, they have turned to the non-human native as a means of making development “sustainable.” The subject of my paper, Ifremeria nautilei, has, simply by living, dying, and enduring across space and time, been cast as an explorer-by-proxy for what is framed by its human interlocutors as inevitable endeavor. I characterize this multispecies engagement using the biological term recruitment, both as a metaphor useful in critiques of neocolonial exploration and as a provocation toward more specific questions of power.

During my first visit to the island of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea in 2013, I encountered several men from the rugged west coast who claimed to be sharkcallers. They alone, I was told, could summon large sharks from the deep ocean through traditional song, magic, and enormous physical strength. Hearing this, and having been enthralled by Dennis O’Rourke’s 1982 film The Sharkcallers of Kontu, I arranged to stay for a week in a guesthouse in the small coastal village of Tembin where much of the film was shot. Sitting around a smoky fire late at night with these men and their families, I was told that some of them not only had the ability to call and catch sharks, but also, should the need arise, could become a shark and move freely across land and sea.

“In what circumstance would that be necessary?” I asked.

“Revenge,” I was told.

“But also,” one man added, “to stop samting nogut, like this seabed mine.”

Whereas O’Rourke’s documentary painted a somewhat fatalist picture of culture change in New Ireland, there I was over thirty years later trying to make sense of the fact that people were considering the possibility of becoming sharks in order to occupy contested areas of ocean and resist what was certain to be an ecological disaster.

New Ireland Sharkcaller. Photo by author.

I returned to school in New York to seek funding for a return trip to New Ireland. There I narrowed the focus of my research to customary marine tenure in the New Guinea Islands and the anthropology of extraction. Around this time, I read a series of articles authored by an international collaboration of ocean scientists, all of which pertained to life in the Bismarck Sea. Written in the spirit of biodiversity conservation, the articles were in fact commissioned by officers of the seabed mining company. What I discovered in these articles was shocking: The selection of the specific mining area for the impending Solwara 1 mine was based largely on speculation of how a newly-discovered snail moves from one isolated site to another in the inky blackness of the deep sea. In the absence of any local human testimony (for the area in question is legally considered “offshore” from any regime of customary tenure), scientists had recruited the animal as a means of territorial demarcation. Like the sharkcallers who used proprietary magic to become the shark, access new territories, and effect change in the world, the scientists had in essence become the snail as a way of knowing and demarcating the deep. Could something which at first glance seemed entirely unique—the strategic ability to become animal—be universally human? In what other ways, in what other instances, and to what ends are humans becoming non-?

In my work and in contemporary studies of fracking, high-seas fishing, toxicity, and climate change, I see the environmental issues of today moving into deep spaces—those which for reasons political, economic, or physiological preclude certain ways of knowing and/or representing ecological knowledge. The lack of scientific knowledge of the deep sea, for example, is in many ways due to its extreme nature, but also to the extreme expense and political difficulties in securing technologies of access. As my research in PNG has shown, such spaces present epistemic and representational challenges, and accordingly, challenges to resistance and sovereignty across all scales. At the very least, they allow us to ask, for whom is this space “offshore?” a “frontier?” or in the case of seabed mining, “out of our depth?”

Woman in Tembin Village peeling taro with clam shell. Photo by author.

This is where an engaged environmental anthropology—one which seeks to understand local practices and knowledges on their own terms (West 2005)—continues to be important. While working closely with native New Irelanders between 2015 and 2016, I began to consider the deep sea (what they call biksolwara ~ big ocean) as a plane of travel across which the living and dead move in and out of the social world. Sophisticated regimes of tenure exist far beyond the waterline and deep below the surface, involving humans and a menagerie of other beings. Furthermore, sea tenure in the Bismarck Archipelago is maintained through relations with specific, named beings: One does not become a generic shark, but becomes the shark associated with one’s own clan. Such ethnographic knowledge becomes useful in deconstructing colonial narratives of remoteness with regard to the ocean. While we might still marvel in the fact that a few Western scientists have become Ifremeria nautilei, those in New Ireland would be quick to point out that such vessels are merely samples, which are by definition once-removed from the earth.

Works Cited

O’Rourke, Dennis, dir. 1982. The Sharkcallers of Kontu. 60 mins.

West, Paige. 2005. “Translation, Value, and Space: Theorizing an Ethnographic and Engaged Environmental Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 107(4):632-642.


I wish to thank the people of New Ireland, the organization committee for the 2018 Roy A. Rappaport Panel, and my fellow panelists for their input and encouragement with these ideas.

Patrick Nason is an interdisciplinary scholar concerned with the past, present, and future of human exploration.  Through ethnographic research, writing, field audio recording, and teaching, he examines how societies produce knowledge of the natural world, represent such knowledge, and consider or contest other ways of knowing.  In 2018 Patrick earned his Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University.  His dissertation research involved both field and archival work among the famed sharkcallers of Papua New Guinea.  There he examined indigenous marine tenure and the political ecology of a new form of extraction known as deep seabed mining (DSM).  Patrick’s work in the Pacific and elsewhere has been funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Columbia University, and The Explorer’s Club, where he has been a Fellow since 2015.

This post is part of our series, 2018 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists.