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Fisheries and environmental organizations issue joint call for moratorium on #DeepSeaMining

EU Reporter | May 29, 2019

Seas At Risk and the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) welcome the call for a moratorium on deep-sea mining in international waters by the Long Distance Fleet Advisory Council (LDAC) of the European Union. In calling for a moratorium, the LDAC highlighted concerns by scientists, the fishing industry and environmental organisations over the potentially severe impacts on fisheries, fish and other species in the oceans and inevitable loss of marine biodiversity from deep-sea mining. The Executive Committee of the LDAC adopted the advice to the European Commission and member states at its meeting in Poland last week and have publicly released.

The International Seabed Authority, an intergovernmental organization established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, is in the process of developing regulations that would permit mining the international areas of the deep ocean seabed.

Matthew Gianni, co-founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, said: “Fishing industry representatives and NGOs in Europe are jointly raising concern with EU member states and the international community over the prospect of deep-sea mining and its likely impacts on fisheries and the marine environment. Scientists have warned that biodiversity loss will be inevitable and likely permanent on human timescales if the International Seabed Authority begins issuing licenses to mine the deep ocean seabed for metals such as copper, nickel, cobalt and manganese.”

The LDAC recommended that no deep seabed mining in the international areas of the ocean seabed under the jurisdiction of the International Seabed Authority should be permitted until:

  • The risks to the marine environment are fully assessed and understood;
  • a clear case can be made deep-sea mining is necessary and not simply profitable for companies or countries that want to mine, and;
  • international commitments to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, strengthen the resilience of marine ecosystems, and initiatives to transition to circular economies, sustainable methods of consumption and production and related efforts as called for the in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 2030 Agenda are recognized.

The LDAC further called on the European Commission and member states to stop funding, facilitating or promoting the development of deep-sea mining and deep-sea mining technology.

Seas At Risk Deputy Director Ann Dom said: “We count on the EU member states to take to heart the call for a moratorium by the European Parliament and the fisheries sector, and to put it firmly on the agenda of the upcoming annual session of the International Seabed Authority.”

The LDAC endorsed a European Parliament resolution adopted in 2018 which also called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining and reform of the International Seabed Authority (ISA). In January of this year, echoing similar concerns, the UK House of Commons Environment Audit Committee released a report stating that deep-sea mining would have “catastrophic impacts on the seafloor” and that the ISA stands to benefit from revenues from issuing mining licenses which the Committee viewed as “a clear conflict of interest”. 

John Tanzer, leader, Oceans Practice, WWF International, said: “A moratorium on seabed mining – given its inherent risks and how little is known about life on the sea floor – is just plain common sense, and particularly in light of recent global biodiversity assessments showing the planet is suffering unprecedented species loss that will have profound impacts on nature and humanity at large.”

The Long Distance Fleet Advisory Council (LDAC) is an EU fisheries body representing stakeholders of both the fishing sector (including catching, processing and marketing sectors, and trade unions), and other groups of interest (environmental NGOs, consumers and civil society). Several DSCC member organizations, including Seas At Risk, WWF, Oceana, Bloom Association, are members of the LDAC.

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Scientists fear impact of deep-sea mining on search for new medicines

Microbes from deep-sea sponges could be a breakthrough in the fight against superbugs. Photograph: Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

Bacteria from the ocean floor can beat superbugs and cancer. But habitats are at risk from the hunger for marine minerals.

“On deep sea vents, scientists are clear – we don’t want mining on them. There are thousands of species of deep-sea animals living there and new species are being discovered all the time.”

Karen McVeigh | The Guardian | 20 May 2019 

When Prof Mat Upton discovered a microbe from a deep-sea sponge was killing pathogenic bugs in his laboratory, he realised it could be a breakthrough in the fight against antibiotic resistant superbugs, which are responsible for thousands of deaths a year in the UK alone.

Further tests last year confirmed that an antibiotic from the sponge bacteria, found living more than 700 metres under the sea at the Rockall trough in the north-east Atlantic, was previously unknown to science, boosting its potential as a life-saving medicine.

But Upton, and other scientists who view the deep ocean and its wealth of unique and undocumented species as a prospecting ground for new medicines, fear such potential will be lost in the rush to exploit the deep sea’s equally rich metal and mineral resources.

“We’re looking at the bioactive potential of marine resources, to see if there are any more medicines or drugs down there before we destroy it for ever,” says Upton, a medical microbiologist at the University of Plymouth. He is among many scientists urging a halt to deep-sea mining, asking for time to weigh up the pros and cons.

“We know sponges are a very good source of bioactive bacteria so I would say they would be a good source of antibiotics and anti-cancer drugs too. In sustainability terms, this could be a better way of exploiting the economic potential of the deep sea.”

Oceanographers using remotely operated vehicles have spotted many new species. Among them have been sea cucumbers with tails allowing them to sail along the ocean floor, and a rare “Dumbo” octopus, found 3,000 metres under the Pacific, off the coast of California.

Upton estimates it could take up to a decade for a newly discovered antibiotic to become a medicine – but the race towards commercial mining in the ocean abyss has already begun.

The deep sea, more than half the world’s surface, contains more nickel, cobalt and rare earth metals than all land reserves combined, according to the US Geological Survey. Mining corporations argue that deep-sea exploration could help diversify the supply of metals, including cobalt for electric car batteries, presently mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where child labour is common. Demand for copper, aluminium, cobalt and other metals, to power technology and smartphones, is soaring.

So far, 29 licences for exploration activities have been granted by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN body made up of 168 countries, to promote and regulate deep-sea mining. No commercial exploitation licences have been granted yet, but one firm, Global Sea Mineral Resources, has said it needs regulations in place by next year to start mining in 2026.

Last week the ISA’s legal and technical commission gathered in Pretoria, South Africa, for a workshop to develop environmental standards for a draft mining code, which will create the framework for exploitation. Michael Lodge, the organisation’s secretary general, has promised regulations will be finalised by 2020.

But many fear this is moving too fast. Mining could devastate fragile ecosystems that are slow to recover in the highly pressurised darkness of the deep sea, as well as having knock-on effects on the wider ocean environment. Critics have called for a 10-year ban on commercial mining.

Kristina Gjerde, a high seas policy specialist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is deeply concerned over the lack of environmental protections in the draft code. “We’re just blindly going into the dark, adjusting any impacts on the way,” says Gjerde. “We have no assurances, no evidence that they can avoid serious harm.”

A cross-party group of MPs wrote in January that deep-sea mining would have “catastrophic impacts” on habitats and species and concluded that the case for such activity had not yet been made.

A study published in January found that soft sediment in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the mid-Pacific, where most exploration licences have been granted, could take up to 10 times longer to resettle than previously thought, meaning sediment is likely to travel farther in the water column before it resettles, affecting marine life over a much larger area.

Dr Kerry Howell, a colleague of Upton’s at the University of Plymouth, is working on a model to try to predict where on the sea bed important species such as Upton’s sponge lie. “We don’t have all the information we need” says Howell, a deep-sea ecologist. “Our project will look at which species might be important and which may be impacted by mining. If the models work, we will know where they are and we will know what they can do, and we can make decisions about whether mining can go ahead.”

Her work is part of a £20m five-year programme, funded by the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund. “We are writing regulations in a severe absence of knowledge of the ecosystem,” she warns.

Howell also receives funding, for separate research, from a deep-sea mining company, UK Seabed Resources, which is a subsidiary of the UK branch of the US aerospace and defence company Lockheed Martin. This is also important work, she acknowledges, but scientists simply do not know enough yet.

“Most deep-sea scientists are concerned at the speed at which the development of regulations is happening,” says Howell.

Britain’s partnership with UK Seabed Resources holds licences to explore a total of 133,000 sq km of the Pacific sea floor, more than any government apart from China, according to analysis by Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative arm. The licences are in the CCZ, the site of one of the world’s largest untapped collections of high-value metal ores. The area contains trillions of potato-sized black lumps called polymetallic nodules, containing cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese.

Dr Jon Copley, associate professor at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton and a contributor to the BBC’s Blue Planet II series on marine life, is studying hydrothermal vents. Formed when seawater meets magma, and the sites of massive sulphide deposits, these vents are one of three different resources of the deep sea being administered by the ISA.

“On deep sea vents, scientists are clear – we don’t want mining on them,” he says. “There are thousands of species of deep-sea animals living there and new species are being discovered all the time.”

Roughly 400 new species have been found at active hydrothermal vents since 1977.

Copley believes science has moved on since the ISA, whose members are parties to the 1982 UN convention on the law of the sea, began its work in 1994. He questions whether the agency is fit for purpose, when part of its mandate is to promote seabed resources “for the benefit of mankind”.

“The ISA was set up on a false premise – that there is a vast wealth down there that could be used to address social injustice. But it is quite possible the enterprise will increase the gap between rich and poor. At what point do we say: ‘Hang on, is this a good idea?’

“I can understand why the ISA doesn’t want to scare off investors by being heavy-handed on environmental protections. They have to deliver the benefits to the developing world. They have to be very careful.”

Environmentalists point to last year’s designation of the “Lost City”, an area under the Atlantic and one of the world’s most important sites of scientific interest, as part of a mining exploration zone, and are sceptical of the ISA’s environmental credentials.

Louisa Casson, an oceans campaigner for Greenpeace, says that the deep sea is comparable to rainforests in terms of carbon sinks, which are vital in combating climate breakdown. Casson says: “We haven’t heard any reassurances from mining companies or the ISA about how they might handle this potential risk. Last year, the ISA granted Poland an exploration licence in an area highlighted by Unesco. Right now, it seems to be serving the interests of the companies.”

The ISA has said there was no suggestion Poland was going to mine in this area and that part of the exploration licence was to conduct environmental studies.

In a statement to the Guardian, Lodge says that, where mining activities are concerned, the ISA is taking “all necessary measures” under the UN convention on the law of the sea “to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment, including marine biodiversity, from harmful effects”.

“An extremely important part of ISA’s mandate is ensuring appropriate environmental assessments and safeguards in the activities it regulates,” he says. “No seabed mining will take place until such elements have been agreed by all 168 member states.”

Lodge says the money the ISA receives from proposed royalties or other finances will be shared for the benefit of member states, particularly taking into account the needs of those that are “least developed and landlocked”.

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The perils of mining the deep

A guest blog from the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition

Matthew Gianni & Sian Owen | The Economist | February 11, 2019

The deep seabed was once believed to be a lifeless realm of mud and rock. This barren image changed dramatically, however, as technology to explore the hidden depths improved. In 2016, the United Nations First World Ocean Assessment described the deep sea as a ‘vast realm which constitutes the largest source of species and ecosystem diversity on Earth, supporting ecosystem processes necessary for our planet’s natural systems to function.’

Scientists are just beginning to discover the full richness of deep-sea life. Yet already a number of companies and countries are exploring the deep ocean for minerals and developing the technology to mine some of the last untouched areas of our planet. Much of the commercial interest is focused on deposits of cobalt, copper, nickel and manganese found in nodules that lie on the deep seabed in an area known as the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ).

Imagine what mining would look like. To collect commercially viable quantities of the metals in the CCZ, a single 30-year mining operation in the area would churn up an estimated 9,000-10,000 km2 of seabed – an area the size of Lebanon. Sediment plumes generated by the activity would fill the surrounding waters and be carried away by deep currents, reaching ecosystems far beyond the mining site. The noise and light of the subsea machinery could cause harm to marine organisms adapted to the quiet darkness, while large quantities of wastewater with residual ore and sediment would be discharged back into the sea.

Beyond national borders

The CCZ is located in the eastern Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Hawaii, beyond the maritime jurisdiction of any country. This area, like all other international stretches of the seabed, is managed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a global body established by the UN Law of the Sea. The ISA is now developing regulations that would permit mining on ‘behalf of mankind as a whole’. ISA member countries have set a target date of 2020 to finalize the regulations in order to be ‘open for business’. In the meantime, the ISA has already handed out 29 licenses to explore for deep-sea minerals, covering some 1.5 million km2 of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. Sixteen of these licenses are in the CCZ.

Meeting demand, on land

Proponents often claim that mining the international seabed is essential for the manufacture of electric batteries, wind turbines and other technology needed for a renewable energy economy. A 2016 report by the Institute for Sustainable Futures refutes this claim. Having reviewed global supplies and projected demand for metals considered key to renewable energy technology, the report concludes that even under the most ambitious scenario – a 100% renewable energy economy globally by 2050 – projected demand could be met by existing terrestrial mining, improved metals recycling, alternatives to metals in short supply, and smarter technology and product design. The report was cited in the World Bank’s recent assessment of future metals needs for renewable energy technologies.

Cobalt in particular, used in batteries for everything from phones to electric vehicles, is often cited as a reason to open up the deep sea to mining. There is growing concern over erratic supplies, poor working conditions and the use of child labour reported in mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where 60-70% of the global cobalt supply is sourced.

To address these issues, several global entities, including BMW, Umicore, Trafigura, the African Development Bank, and the US Department of Labor, are working on the ground and in the marketplace. Some major battery manufacturing companies like Tesla and Panasonic have committed to phasing out cobalt over the coming decade. Others are actively investing in research and development for substitutes.

The success of these efforts remains to be seen. But direct engagement with the sector in the DRC and working on improved sustainability and standards within the current supply chain are more likely to address problems with terrestrial mining than opening up a new deep-sea industry with its host of new risks and impacts.

Great promise or great extinction?

A 2018 submission to the ISA signed by 50 non-governmental organisations questions whether deep-sea mining can ever be compatible with countries’ obligations to protect and sustainably manage the oceans. Recent articles published in international scientific journals argue that biodiversity loss from deep-sea mining is likely to be inevitable and irrevocable, and that most of this loss would be permanent on human timescales.

This sentiment is beginning to gain political traction. The European Parliament adopted a resolution on international oceans governance in January 2018, calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until the risks to the environment are fully understood. This call was repeated by the UN Envoy on Oceans at the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.

Concerted international efforts to halt and reverse biodiversity loss are critical to the survival of life as we know it. The international community of nations should not agree to permit deep-sea mining on the global ocean commons until the risks are fully understood and we are certain that it will not open up a whole new frontier of ecosystem degradation, biodiversity loss and extinction.

For more from Matthew and Sian, follow the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition on twitter at @DeepSeaConserve.

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ISA and United Nations selling experimental seabed mining to Pacific island governments

A bulk-cutter designer for seabed mining

How can efforts to ’conserve and sustainably use the oceans’ be so seamlessly co-opted as a cover for efforts to promote the mining of the seabed?

Unfortunately international agencies like the UN are masters are such deceits and have no regard for the views of Pacific Island people who are vehemently opposed to the exploitation of the seabed…

Pacific small island developing states capacity building on deep seabed mining

International Seabed Mining | 7 February 2019

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) will hold a regional training and capacity building workshop for Pacific Small Island Developing States (P-SIDS) on deep seabed mining in Nuku’alofa, Kingdom of Tonga, from 12 to 14 February 2019. 

The workshop is being held as part of the joint ISA-UNDESA ‘Abyssal initiative for Blue Growth,’ one of the seven Voluntary Commitments made by ISA at the UN Ocean Conference in 2017 to advance implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG 14) to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources  (#OceanAction16538).

High-level representatives from P-SIDS and experts in deep seabed mining and marine science will gather at the workshop to discuss the potential benefits [but not the potential impacts] of increased participation of P-SIDS in deep-sea related activities, and how to ensure that the people in the region will fully benefit from such activities. 

Held over three-days, the workshop will feature sessions on: the status of deep seabed mining activities in the Pacific; the roles and responsibilities of sponsoring States; the legal regime for marine scientific research and environmental management of resources. It is also envisaged that through this workshop, it will be possible to identify better the specific capacity-building needs of P-SIDS in regards to deep seabed mineral related activities.

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The environmental costs of deep-sea mining

Unique deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems that harbour chemosynthetic life forms such as giant tubeworms. Active mining of vents would destroy these rare ecosystems (Image: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program)

Countries must determine if mining the ocean can be done without harm to the environment

Matthew GianniDuncan Currie | china dialogue | 26 July 2018

There is growing interest in opening up the deep-sea to industrial mining for copper, nickel, cobalt, gold, rare earths and other metals. But at what cost?

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is meeting this week to discuss a strategic plan for the development and regulation of mining in the deep ocean beyond national waters.

The ISA was established in 1994 under the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is responsible for deciding whether, how and under what conditions, mining could be permitted in the international area of the seabed, an area equal to about a third of the earth’s surface.

The ISA has already issued 29 contracts to companies and state agencies from China, Korea, Japan, UK, Germany, Belgium, France, Russia, Brazil, India, Poland and a number of South Pacific countries to explore for metals in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.

Biodiversity at risk

But the deep-sea is increasingly recognised as one of the largest reservoirs of biodiversity on the planet and critical to supporting planetary ecological systems.

This first World Ocean Assessment report, published by the UN in 2016, also concluded that deep-sea ecosystems are already stressed by climate change, pollutants, and other human activities. Even plastics are making their way into the deep ocean. A recent study found plastics in the stomachs of fish in depths of 11,000 metres – the very deepest parts of the ocean.

Several scientific papers published in the past year have concluded that if deep-sea mining is allowed then biodiversity loss is inevitable. This is because many deep ocean species are long-lived, and ecosystems will struggle to recover, or may never recover, from mining impacts.

Other studies have pointed to the uniqueness of deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems that harbour chemosynthetic life forms such as giant tubeworms. These recent discoveries have vastly broadened our understanding of how life has evolved on our planet.

The vents also form mineral deposits known as polymetallic sulfides. The ISA has issued exploration licenses for these, but if active vents are mined then the life that thrives in these rare ecosystems will be destroyed.

Weighing the risks

Given the role of the deep-sea and the vulnerability of species and ecosystems to long-term and potentially irreversible damage, it is important that we first understand the risks before deciding whether, and under what conditions, deep-sea mining could be permitted to occur.

This is the essence of a resolution adopted by the European Parliament in January of this year, which called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until the risks are fully understood.

The Parliament also called for greater transparency by the ISA so that it ensures “effective protection” of the marine environment. This, after all, is its obligation under the Convention on the Law of the Sea. The ISA is also charged with acting for the “benefit of mankind as a whole” as the global steward of the international seabed, referred to in international law as the “common heritage of mankind”.

The UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015, commit all countries to rethink their economies, their use of the earth’s natural resources, and the protection of our oceans and wider environments in the context of sustainable development.

SDG 14 commits all nations to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. We need to conserve the ocean and we need to be investing in reusable technologies, recycling, and better product design to ensure we make the best use of the resources we have.

SDG 14 also commits nations to protecting and restoring ocean ecosystems and enhancing their resilience to be able to better survive the harmful effects of climate change.

The Chinese government has repeatedly told the ISA that it needs to take time for careful consideration and scientific study, while other voices are clamouring for rapid action and adoption of regulations to allow deep-sea mining.

China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA) recently held a workshop in Qingdao to start development of a Regional Environmental Management Plan (REMP) for an area of the western Pacific where China, Russia, Japan and Korea have exploration claims for cobalt crust mining on seamounts. REMPs are essential environmental tools to assess the regional characteristics and environmental needs.

Countries must seriously weigh whether deep-sea mining is consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals and their obligations under international law. Is it worth the risk of significant biodiversity loss and the degradation of deep ocean ecosystems? This is a debate that should occur this week at the ISA and within the broader international community of nations as a whole. The future of our oceans is at stake.

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Oceans Face Ultimate Threat from Deep Sea Mining

New Website & Letter Signed By International Scientists & Organizations Urging for a Moratorium on Deep Sea Mining 

MiningWatch Canada | July 24 2018

Our international waters – known as the “common heritage of (human)kind” – are under a new, imminent, and most deadly threat from the deep sea mining industry. 

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN agency which has not received much public scrutiny until now, meets in Kingston, Jamaica this week to discuss how to open up the deep sea bed to mining. Scientists, academics, and non-governmental organizations unite in a joint letter to raise alarm over this ultimate threat to our oceans.

Nnimmo Bassey, Director, HOMEF foundation and Alternative Nobel Prize recipient stated:

“Oceans play a critical role in maintaining life on the planet. However, the ISA continues to ignore the profound lack of scientific understanding of the immediate and long-term ecological costs of digging up the sea floor. 

“It is evident that large private and state-owned conglomerates have succeeded in shifting the ISA’s regulatory discussions toward outcomes favourable to corporate-directed industrial development.”

“Our joint letter is a call from civil society globally to protect our common heritage.”

Renowned marine biologists, including Cindy Van Dover and colleagues, have recently pointed out that deep-sea mining would impact both the seabed and the water column, such that biodiversity loss would be both “unavoidable” and “likely to last forever on human timescales.”

“The world’s seas are already on the brink of catastrophe from overfishing, pollution, such as from plastics and chemicals, destruction of critical habitat such as mangroves and coral reefs, global warming and acidification” said Catherine Coumans of MiningWatch Canada.

“The oceans cannot survive wide scale destruction of the sea bed by the same irresponsible industry that mines on land.” 

The signers of the joint letter noted:

“This is not the time to move forward with an extractive regime; there are far too many uncertainties. International leadership at the ISA is required to prevent recklessly proceeding with deep-sea mining.”

The ISA has already issued numerous exploration contracts in international waters to mining interests supported by member states of the ISA. As these exploration contracts come to an end, the ISA is considering implementing a regime to allow extraction.

Raj Patel, Activist, New York Times best-selling author and Research Professor, University of Texas claimed:

“When the Law of the Sea was written and the idea of ‘common inheritance’ first framed, I’m certain that corporations weren’t intended to inherit the seabed. There’s little evidence that corporate stewardship is compatible with the continued, sustained health of these under-studied ecosystems.”

“The seabed is everyone’s common inheritance, and we need broad, transnational and formal public consultation to learn and then decide how best to ensure its survival for those who will inherit it from us.”

Rather than permitting deep sea mining the ISA must declare a moratorium on deep sea mining before irreparable damage is done to the health of the world’s oceans.

View and sign Letter | Download Letter

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Draft mining regulations insufficient to protect the deep sea – IUCN report

“Our current understanding of the deep sea does not allow us to effectively protect marine life from mining operations

“Stringent precautionary measures to protect the marine environment should be a core part of any mining regulations, yet these remain missing in action”

IUCN | 16 July 2018

Regulations under development at the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to manage deep-sea mining are insufficient to prevent irrevocable damage to marine ecosystems and a loss of unique species – many yet to be discovered, an IUCN report warns.

The report, Deep seabed mining: a rising environmental challenge, provides a comprehensive overview of deep-sea mining and its potential environmental impacts. The report was launched today, coinciding with the 24th session of the ISA, whose aim is to agree on a ‘mining code’ to regulate the exploitation of the deep seabed.

According to the report, an effective regulatory framework is needed to avoid lasting harm to the marine environment, based on high-quality environmental impact assessments and mitigation strategies. These, in turn, must be based on comprehensive baseline studies to improve the understanding of the deep sea, which remains understudied and poorly understood.

The mining code currently under development lacks sufficient knowledge of the deep sea and a thorough assessment of environmental impacts of mining operations that are necessary to ensure effective protection of deep-sea life, according to IUCN experts.

“We are operating in the dark,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme.

“Our current understanding of the deep sea does not allow us to effectively protect marine life from mining operations. And yet, exploration contracts are being granted even for those areas that host highly unique species. Exploitation of minerals using current technologies could potentially destroy the rich deep-sea life forever, benefitting only a few, and disregarding future generations.”

There is growing commercial interest in deep-sea mineral deposits as a result of projected rising demand for copper, aluminium, cobalt and other metals. These resources are used to produce high-tech applications, such as smartphones, and green technologies, such as electric storage batteries.

Though there is little empirical evidence of the impacts of deep-sea mining, the potential impacts are worrying. These include direct physical damage to marine habitats due to the scraping of the ocean floor by machines – similar to clearcutting a forest – and the stirring up of fine sediments on the seafloor that can smother animals and cloud the water. Additional impacts include toxic pollution due to leaks and spills, noise, vibrations and light pollution from mining equipment and surface vessels.

By May 2018, the ISA – which has the dual mandate of promoting the development of deep-sea minerals whilst ensuring that this development is not harmful to the environment – had issued 29 contracts for the exploration of the deep sea. Commercial mining in international waters is expected to begin no earlier than 2025. Exploratory mining in the national waters of Japan started in 2017, and commercial mining is predicted to occur in Papua New Guinea by 2020. 

“With regulations for commercial deep-sea mining currently under development, we are facing a unique window of opportunity to ensure that potential impacts of these operations are properly assessed, understood and publically discussed,” says Kristina Gjerde, IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme senior advisor on the high seas.

“Stringent precautionary measures to protect the marine environment should be a core part of any mining regulations, yet these remain missing in action. In addition to this, the ISA’s challenging and conflicting mandate will require improved oversight by the international community to ensure marine life is adequately protected.”

Deep-sea mining is the process of retrieving mineral deposits from the deep sea – the area of the ocean below 200 m. The area covers about 65% of the Earth’s surface and harbours a rich diversity of species – many unknown to science – which are uniquely adapted to harsh environmental conditions. It also includes unique geological features, including the Mariana Trench – the greatest depth registered in the ocean.

The 24th session of the ISA is taking place from 2 to 27 July in Kingston, Jamaica.

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