The threat of deep sea mining hangs over our ocean as negotiations in Jamaica close

To me, it is quite terrifying to imagine that in just over a year’s time, deep sea mining may be given the go-ahead. Greenpeace USA was at the meeting in Kingston, Jamaica of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and has been sounding alarm bells since it began. The meeting ended last Friday, April 1, 2022. The ISA’s concluding press release states, quite bluntly, what the main order of business was:

The ISA Council meetings focused on the draft Regulations on exploitation of mineral resources in the Area.

This threatened plunge (literally) into the depths of the ocean to extract minerals, without understanding or recognizing the science or the expected devastating environmental impact, would be irreversible and impossible to repair or restore. We would not be able to go back and “fix” it later. It is funny how humans seem to think this is always possible, after we have already brought about the destruction of a Cockpit Country forest, or bulldozed another coastal wetland system.

622 marine science & policy experts from over 44 countries signed a statement on deep sea mining here:

No, the damage would be done and the spin-off of consequences is hard to fathom; but the prospects are dire. A moratorium – a breathing space – on deep sea mining is a “must.”

The final day of the ISA Meeting coincided with the release of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group III on Mitigation – that is, on reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere). The report makes it clear that we are almost at a tipping point, and that urgent action is needed. It is stark. Our ocean is a huge carbon sink, taking up those gases from the atmosphere and storing them — billions of tons per year. What would be the impact of deep sea mining on climate change? Can you imagine?

The UN Secretary General António Guterres commented on the latest IPCC report. His introduction to the report did not mince words. He expressed his shock at the inaction of developed countries on climate change:

This report from the IPCC is a litany of broken climate promises. It is a file of shame, cataloguing the empty promises that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world. We are on a fast track to climate disaster…

You cannot claim to be green while your plans and projects undermine the 2050 net-zero target and ignore the major emissions cuts that must occur this decade.  

I wonder if the ISA heard that last comment. After all, it does claim to offer environmental protection under its mandate. Doesn’t it? Here is Greenpeace USA’s final release on the recently concluded session:

A manganese nodule from the sea bed, tens of millions of years old. (Photo: NOAA)


Negotiations to develop the rules and regulations that would govern the destructive deep-sea mining industry have ended in Kingston, Jamaica. If approved and adopted, the regulations proposed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) would give the green light to risky deep-sea mining as soon as July 2023, which would undermine the health of our ocean at a time when we rely on it most.

Comprising 167 Member States plus the European Union, the ISA is explicitly charged with ensuring the protection of life in the deep from any proposed mining activities. Scientists continue to warn us that if the industry were to go ahead, its impacts would be felt across vast areas of the ocean and would be irreversible on multi-generational timescales. It also risks disturbing critical carbon sinks, would cause the extinction of species and is likely to impact global fisheries. The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), a coalition of almost 100 civil society organizations, has been advocating throughout negotiations for a moratorium, an official, global pause.

Duncan Currie, representing the DSCC at negotiations said: “It is clear from the past two weeks that ISA member states are starting to wake up to the fact that if deep-sea mining were to be given the go-ahead in just over a year, the damage to the ocean and marine ecosystems would be irreparable, and critical carbon sinks could be at risk.” The German delegation present throughout negotiations told the Guardian last Friday that: “The current state of knowledge is, in our view, insufficient to proceed to exploiting mineral resources.”

“It is disappointing however that to date, no state has called for an outright moratorium,” said Currie. “Time is running out. States need to commit to a moratorium and to see that no regulations for exploitation are approved. We must be perfectly clear: adoption of regulations means giving the green light to deep-sea mining.”

Appetite to ensure the protection of the marine environment has been evident throughout negotiations with stronger interventions from negotiators and greater levels of critical engagement than has previously been the case. Delegations including Costa Rica, and Canada have called to see the industry cause ‘no harm’ to the marine environment. Numerous member States and observers, including the DSCC and the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI), have also warned of a lack of comprehensive independent scientific information that would be needed to monitor the industry, were it to go ahead.  A lack of consideration of traditional, indigenous knowledge has also been an issue, spearheaded by FSM throughout negotiations. 

Beyond Kingston, resistance to the industry continues to grow with political leaders and institutions, businesses, banks and financial institutions, civil society organizations, and communities across the world calling for a pause.

Would-be miners claim that deep sea minerals are needed for batteries for smart technology, but it is increasingly clear that the battery industry is moving away from these metals. A new generation of batteries that either reuses these metals – or does not use them at all – is already starting to enter the market.

Sian Owen, Director of the DSCC commented: “As world leaders work to develop a global framework to reverse the decline of biodiversity and commit to taking urgent action to tackle climate breakdown, it is clearer than ever that deep-sea mining has no part in a sustainable future for our planet. Rather than opening up our ocean to a new frontier of industrial extraction, we should mine the wrecking yards, not our ocean.”

Delegates have consistently highlighted the fundamental flaws of the ISA including a lack of transparency within the Authority’s Legal and Technical Commission (LTC), the arm of the ISA charged with providing recommendations on whether to approve any commercial mining licenses. If the LTC recommends that an application for mining be approved, the Council (the decision-making arm of the ISA) would need to overturn the recommendation with a ⅔ majority, plus a majority in 4 ‘Chambers’. This clearly demonstrates the skew of the authority towards mining, rather than ocean protection. Currently, the LTC meets behind closed doors and does not disclose details of approved exploration contracts. The transparency issues surrounding the LTC were particularly apparent as negotiations came to a close on Friday. Discussions on how to implement geographic representation within the LTC happened behind closed doors, with the summary presented once most delegations had left in the evening, and without translators present.

An inability of the Authority to effectively control would-be miners was an issue that also came through strongly throughout negotiations, highlighted by the DSCC on numerous occasions and supported by Norway, The Netherlands, Chile, Italy, and Costa Rica. It is expected that this issue will be discussed in the ISA’s July meeting. 

Matthew Gianni representing Earthworks at negotiations commented: “The international seabed makes up part of our global commons – it belongs to all of us. The International Seabed Authority should be an institution that represents us all, and in which every member of humankind can have full confidence in its structure, capacity, and processes. This is currently far from the case.” Gianni continued: “International commitments on nature and climate need to translate into urgent action on the floor of the ISA council. Anything less than a moratorium on the industry would be a failure.”

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