Mining the ocean depths
The deep ocean, in areas beyond national jurisdiction, is no longer a total mystery. Unfortunately, humankind has discovered that there are valuable minerals down there. Equally unfortunately, we have no idea how to mine them without doing significant and long-term damage to plants and animals living there about which we know virtually nothing.
Regulation of these regions beyond national jurisdiction lies with the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which was set up under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). ISA is the organization through which States Parties to UNCLOS organize and control all mineral-resources-related activities in the Area “for the benefit of humankind as a whole”. Its mandate also requires it “to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment from harmful effects that may arise from deep-seabed-related activities”.
The ISA has already authorized 30 exploration licences for activity that the proponents always describe as ‘mining for minerals needed for electric car batteries’. Nice way to describe ploughing the ocean floor or scraping the surface off hydrothermal vents and sending up plumes of sediment without having the first clue what damage that could do to deep sea life.
Delegates to the ISA have been attempting to formulate regulations that would govern full-scale commercial activity and had given themselves July 2023 as a deadline to come up with those regulations. Thankfully, a handful of State Parties have been lobbying hard to derail this effort until sufficient research can be done to determine what the impacts of deep sea mining might be. Canada joined that chorus at the beginning of July. The government’s statement, jointly issued by Ministers Melanie Jolie, Jonathan Wilkinson and Joyce Murray, said in part, “in the absence of both a comprehensive understanding of seabed mining’s environmental impacts and a robust regulatory regime, Canada supports a moratorium on commercial seabed mining in areas beyond national jurisdiction and will not support the provisional approval of a plan of work.
As of July 23, 2023, the immediate pressure is off: the ISA has been unable to secure agreement on a regulatory framework and has resisted efforts to require it to name a new deadline. It is now expected that it will be at least 2025 before a regulatory regime is in place, but even this is not enough time, say internationally respected scientists, to begin to understand the potential impacts of mining the deep.
Renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle recently teamed up with cellist Yo-Yo Ma to bring the mystery and magic of the depths to us all. Watch the video to see the amazing creatures with which we’re barely acquainted but will be at risk from deep sea mining activity.
Add your voice to #DefendtheDeep.