- Deep-sea mining is facing growing opposition from various countries, including Canada, Sweden, Ireland and Switzerland, as well as the U.N. human rights chief and a major seafood industry group.
- On July 10, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the U.N.-associated deep-sea mining regulator, began a set of highly anticipated meetings in Kingston, Jamaica, to discuss adopting mining regulations.
- Commercial deep-sea mining has not yet begun. One firm previously said it intended to apply for a mining license later this year, adding urgency to the discussions.
- Mining companies say it’s necessary to mine the deep sea to extract minerals for renewable technologies; scientists and other experts say seabed minerals aren’t required for these technologies, and this mining could cause irreparable damage to the marine environment.
Deep-sea mining is facing growing opposition at a critical moment that could either enable the prospective industry to advance or halt it in its tracks.
On July 10, the U.N.-associated deep-sea mining regulator, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), opened a highly anticipated meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, to discuss adopting mining regulations to govern seabed extraction. Two years ago, the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru activated a “two-year rule” that pressured the ISA to finalize its regulations by July 9, 2023, or begin accepting applications for extraction with whatever rules were in place at the time. Currently, the mining regulations are still in draft form and appear far from complete, experts close to the matter say.
Over the past few weeks, several countries, including Sweden, Ireland and Switzerland, have voiced new support for a moratorium or precautionary pause on deep-sea mining. Canada — the home country of The Metals Company (TMC), a firm sponsored by Nauru with plans to start mining in the near future through one of its subsidiaries — has also called for a moratorium.
Other nations that have called for similar measures on earlier occasions include Chile, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, the Federated States of Micronesia, Ecuador, Fiji, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Palau, Samoa and Vanuatu. Last year, France called for an outright ban on deep-sea mining. Many car companies, including BMW, Volvo Group and Renault, also support a moratorium and have vowed not to use any metals extracted from the ocean in their electric vehicles.
Also on July 10, Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, urged governmental delegates to the ISA to issue a moratorium on deep-sea mining, warning of the potential for irreversible damage to marine ecosystems and the climate. This is the first time a U.N. representative has criticized deep-sea mining in a public forum.
A new study published in npj Ocean Sustainability on July 11 suggests that commercially important tuna species could change their migration patterns in response to climate change, moving eastward into the high seas to the very places earmarked for deep-sea mining in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean. It argues that tuna could be negatively affected by mining plumes, noise and other forms of pollution and disturbance.
The publication of this study coincides with a coalition of seafood industry groups releasing a letter calling for a pause on deep-sea mining until “there is a clear understanding of the impacts the industry may have on the marine environment, its living resources, and those dependent on them.” One of the letter’s signatories is the Global Tuna Alliance, whose 48 industry partners account for 32% of the global tuna trade.
In June, the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC), a leading science association that offers independent advice to policymakers, also issued a call for a moratorium, arguing that deep-sea mining would cause irreparable damage to marine ecosystems and that it isn’t necessary for meeting the need for critical minerals for renewable technologies.
While deep-sea mining is facing a great deal of opposition, some countries, such as Nauru, China, Russia, and South Korea, are in favor of pushing forward with mining.
While Norway has stated at previous ISA meetings that no mining should occur until a regulatory framework is established and more knowledge is gathered, it is pushing forward with plans to mine the seabed along its own continental shelf. Norway’s government has argued that deep-sea mining is necessary for a successful “green transition.” Norwegian company Loke Marine Minerals is one of three companies looking to mine off the coast of Norway, but it also holds exploration licenses for mining the CCZ.
Gerard Barron, the CEO of TMC, said in a recent interview with the BBC that deep-sea mining is necessary to “transition away from petroleum productions” and that the world should extract metals “from parts of the planet with the least amount of life.”
While very little is known about deep-sea ecosystems and their inhabitants, a recent study compiled a list of 5,578 species that scientists have documented living in the CCZ, most of them new to science and unidentified.
Mining companies are looking to extract polymetallic nodules, potato-sized rocks that contain high concentrations of metals such as cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese, from the CCZ.
TMC previously told Mongabay that it intended to apply for a mining license later this year, but the company didn’t confirm whether these plans are still in place in a recent email to Mongabay.
In the emailed statement, Barron did say the company’s sponsoring state, Nauru, “has stated that it will not support the submission of an application during the July meetings at the ISA, and it is our strong preference to submit an application with exploitation regulations in place.”
“Our subsidiary, NORI, commits to only submitting an application for a commercial contract after we complete a high quality comprehensive, science-driven environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) that we believe will answer remaining questions surrounding the impacts of collecting polymetallic nodules and which we hope will set a high bar for this industry,” Barron said in the emailed statement.
The current ISA meetings will last until July 28, bringing together delegates from 167 member states and official observers. One agenda item being put forward by Chile, Costa Rica, France, Palau and Vanuatu is a long-term suspension of deep-sea mining activities.
“Over the coming weeks, decision makers need to take the bold, but pivotal, decision to make the ocean — and its benefits for all humankind — a number one priority. It’s promising to see more and more nations and organisations joining the call for a moratorium on deep-seabed mining but we urge more to do so with haste,” Kristian Teleki, CEO of U.K.-based NGO Fauna & Flora International, told Mongabay in an emailed statement.
“The ocean is vital for our survival, and deep sea mining has the potential to destroy species we have yet to discover,” he added. “We must ensure the effective protection of the marine environment and a precautionary approach to activity is essential.”
Banner image: Deep sea marine species. Image by NOAA.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
Amon, D. J., Palacios-Abrantes, J., Drazen, J. C., Lily, H., Nathan, N., Van der Grient, J. M., & McCauley, D. (2023). Climate change to drive increasing overlap between Pacific tuna fisheries and emerging deep-sea mining industry. npj Ocean Sustainability, 2(1). doi:10.1038/s44183-023-00016-8
Rabone, M., Wiethase, J. H., Simon-Lledó, E., Emery, A. M., Jones, D. O., Dahlgren, T. G., … Glover, A. G. (2023). How many metazoan species live in the world’s largest mineral exploration region? Current Biology. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2023.04.052
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