The future of deep seabed mining

Can this week’s meeting of the International Seabed Authority agree a way to develop mining whilst protecting biodiversity?

By Jessica Aldred / Chinadialogue Ocean

Deep seabed mining machines manufactured by Nautilus Minerals (Image: Nautilus Minerals)

It’s one of the coldest, darkest places on earth, full of marine life – much of which is yet to be discovered – with a seabed rich in mineral deposits.

In the last decade, the floor of the deep ocean that lies outside the jurisdiction of any one country has been increasingly explored. A number of parties are assessing the size and extent of mineral deposits that could provide raw materials for everything from batteries and jet engines to wind turbines and mobile phones.

Some deep seabed mining has already taken place within countries’ waters: Japan in 2017, and in Papua New Guinea where the controversial Solwara 1 mining project has ground to a halt. But this year will see a critical global debate on how to manage the resources that lie in “the area” – international waters of more than 200 metres deep that cover nearly two-thirds of the earth.

The question of who mines these – and how – is due to be formalised in a “code” being drawn up by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the UN–appointed body responsible for managing the riches of the deep seabed for the “common heritage of mankind”.

Tasked with what some say is an impossible mandate of promoting the development of deep seabed mining while ensuring the practice does not harm the marine environment, the ISA’s 168 members must agree on how these fragile and unique ecosystems will be protected, how the potentially multibillion dollar industry will be regulated, how any profits will be shared equitably, and how it can demonstrate accountability and transparency.

The clock is ticking. So far, the ISA has granted 29 exploration contracts of 15 years for three types of deposits across more than 1.3 million square kilometres of seabed in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans. Several of these contracts are due to expire in 2021, so the ISA has two key meetings in February and July in Kingston, Jamaica, to finalise the code and meet its deadline of 2020.

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