Deep-sea mining: Bringing the voice of science to the international stage

By Jessie Perelman, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla ‘Launchpad’ Fellow”

The ISA Council in session. Member states and observers from around the world deliver their interventions to the secretariat. Photo: Jessie Perelman

“Distinguished representative. You may now take the floor.”

“Thank you, Madame President.”

These formalities are standard for Council Sessions of the International Seabed Authority (ISA). What comes next is a series of observations and interventions from international delegates concerning an emerging natural resource industry: deep-sea mining. At the 25th Annual Session of the ISA in Kingston, Jamaica, I joined the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI) delegation as a Safina Center Kalpana Chawla Launchpad Fellow, and witnessed a process that is making decisions on behalf of humankind.

DOSI delegation for the 25th Council Session of the ISA (L-R): Jeff Drazen, Diva Amon, Julie Huber, Jessie Perelman, Aline Jaeckel, Phillip Turner, and Verena Tunnicliffe. Photo: Jessie Perelman

It’s here at the ISA annual sessions where policy makers, interested parties, scientific organizations, industry representatives, and environmental NGOs come together to develop (ideally) sustainable regulations for this budding global industry, which will target seafloor ecosystems ranging from seamounts to abyssal plains. The role of the ISA is to regulate all activities related to minerals in the seabed outside national jurisdictions. In other words, the majority of the world’s ocean floor.

As the Council convenes each morning, delegates respectfully await their turn to address the ISA secretariat. About what? Concerns with the proposed Draft Exploitation Regulations, disagreements about management protocols, or, in some cases as was seen this year, handing the microphone over to mining contractors for a 20-minute marketing spiel….

We heard statements from numerous countries, including Poland, Japan, Nauru, Germany, Australia, and India, to name just a few. There is very good reason for the sweeping interest in seabed mining on the high seas. These sites harbor some of the largest deposits of rare-earth metals on the planet, as well as more common metals such as cobalt, nickel, copper, and iron. They may in turn provide the building blocks that support our modern-day cell phones, computers, and batteries, and demand for them will only increase as land-based deposits become more limited in the future.

But what’s clear is that not every country is eager to begin mining the ocean’s basement. For instance, Algeria, on behalf of the African Group, made clear their position against the rapid advancement of this industry, instead emphasizing caution; this area is the Common Heritage of Mankind so it belongs to you and me, as well as all generations to come. Not surprisingly, the dialogue at the 25th Annual Session goes in various directions until consensuses are finally met.

Oceanographers like Craig Smith at the University of Hawai’i believe that deep-sea mining has the potential to cause the largest environmental influence of any one human endeavor regarding its scope of impact. For scale, one region of particular interest for manganese nodules is the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ), a 6 million km2 area in the central North Pacific Ocean. The CCZ spans a width equal to the continental United States and currently holds exploration claims by 16 countries, with likely more to come, regulated by the ISA.

Polymetallic manganese nodules like these are present in all the world’s oceans and are found in high densities throughout the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ) in the abyssal central Pacific. They grow at a rate of several millimeters every million years. Photo: Ifremer/Nautile; Wedding et al. 2015

So where does DOSI come in? DOSI is an organization that combines science and technology with law, policy, and economics to guide deep-ocean resource use and ecosystem-based management. Seven DOSI representatives attended this ISA meeting to promote the inclusion of environmental research and scientific process in the development of mining regulations.

Jeff Drazen of the University of Hawai’i (left), Julie Huber of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (center), and Verena Tunnicliffe of the University of Victoria (right) speak to a room of delegates on behalf of DOSI in an effort to bring new scientific knowledge to the attention of the ISA council members. Photo: Jessie Perelman

But raw scientific information in its state of jargon and elaborate terminology cannot merely exist. It ought to be translated into a medium that multiple interest groups such as policy makers, contractors, and member states can easily digest to allow for well-informed decision making in relation to deep-sea mineral extraction. Perhaps the efforts of DOSI, and articles like this, will begin to shed light on the importance of this knowledge transfer.

Diva Amon (left) of DOSI and Kristina Gjerde (right) of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and also a DOSI member, provide comments to the Secretariat and Council on a Draft Exploitation Regulations. Photo: ENB/IISD

During a special side event, several of our members presented new and relevant scientific knowledge, including the potential midwater impacts of mining-related sediment plumes, the importance of microbes in deep-sea habitats, and the ecological significance of hydrothermal vents. Along with the efforts of several scientists on the ISA’s Legal and Technical Commission, events like this provide an opportunity to discuss the importance of this research with delegates involved in the decision-making process, as the system indeed seeks to ensure the consideration of conservation alongside exploitation. The hope is that policymakers who attend these side events go back into the Council Session and incorporate the scientific knowledge into the developing regulations for deep-sea mining, which could be put in place as early as 2020.

With this up and coming deadline, there is a need for greater understanding about the natural biodiversity of deep-sea communities in areas where resources lie, their resilience to major disturbance events, and well-monitored test mining operations to provide a more complete appreciation for the scale of impact this industry might have.

So what now…
Contrary to environmental catastrophes like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, we have the rare opportunity to study ecological baseline conditions and potential impacts before a major disturbance event.

Naturally the big question is, what’s the rush?

In the recent words of Peter Thomson, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for the Ocean, “There is a UN decade for Ocean Science, which has been agreed to by 193 countries…why wouldn’t we give that decade its full run before we even start thinking about disturbing the seabed of the high seas?”

The ongoing work to enhance the role of scientific research and inclusion of sound environmental practices in the creation of mining regulations and procedures may define this evolving industry for decades to come.

The sun sets on part one of the 25th ISA Annual Session. The council will reconvene for part two in July. Photo: ENB/IISD

One Comment on “Deep-sea mining: Bringing the voice of science to the international stage

  1. Jessie, With the extremely slow rate of growth of the nodules, it seems to me – a not educated oceanographer – that they become almost a non-renewable resource.
    really interesting email. Eme

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