The ISA is the United Nations (UN) body charged with managing seabed mining in the half of the world's ocean that lies beyond the jurisdiction of any individual nation. But according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the regulations under development at the 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.
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 to coincide 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 IUCN say 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 2nd to 27th July in Kingston, Jamaica. From July 16 to 27, the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), which represents over 80 non-governmental organisations concerned with protecting the deep sea, will be present in Jamaica where the ISA Council and Assembly will debate the regulations. The DSCC will seek to ensure that the final version of the code adopted is adequate to protect the vulnerable deep ocean from the massive long-term destruction inherent in mining.