In 1876, during a journey renowned for being the ‘birth of oceanography’, the first known discovery of deep-sea minerals was made by HMS Challenger. It wasn’t for another hundred years however that the potential of polymetallic nodules was realised . A huge flood of interest was followed, principally from developed nations, claiming exclusive rights for large swathes of the sea floor. In an attempt to regulate this one-sided resource grabbing and control the activities impacting the sea bed, the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (a missed opportunity to call these laws the ‘Code of the Pirate Brethren’?), formulated the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in 1994.
… the ISA has conceded its primary role of protecting the ocean floor.
The hope for the ISA was to not only ensure greater protection for the sea bed but if any harvesting of this environment was to occur, it was to be equitably distributed across developed and developing nations. ‘For the benefit of all mankind’ (as a woman writing this I personally feel as though I’ve missed out something quite big here…). Fast forward to 2021 and the ‘Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone’ (CCFZ) in the Pacific Ocean is a humungous site designated for deep sea mining and exploration. It is contracted to a limited number of nations and has had absolutely no public involvement or awareness. Equitable and environmental considerations seem to be astray and I’m certainly not sure where the benefit to ‘all kind’ comes into this, let alone man. So where did this all go so wrong?
The ISA – A Trustworthy Authority…Right?
Under UNCLOS (aka the pirate code) the deep sea is defined as “the common heritage of mankind”. Upon forming the ISA, UNCLOS gave it two main roles in governing this common heritage; to protect the seafloor and to regulate any activities that occur, in an equitable manner . The first issue that therefore exists within the ISA is that it’s two defining roles are essentially at cross purposes and, consequently, a little contradictory. These are opposing positions; for one to succeed the other must be compromised. It’s probably not surprising therefore that for a license to be rejected on environmental grounds, there must be ‘substantial evidence’ indicating the risk of ‘serious harm’ to the marine environment. In a time of a biodiversity and climate crisis, this opposes the commonplace ‘precautionary principle’ developed by the Convention of Biological Diversity that many other industries are now regulated by. It is clear in light of these factors that the ISA has conceded its primary role of protecting the ocean floor.
In regards to regulating and governing the ocean floor, contractors (i.e., international mining organisations) have to apply for mining exploration before they can obtain a license from the ISA. Only seven countries currently hold these. These contractors have to be ‘credible’ , for instance, a nation has to have ratified (i.e. officially approved and signed) UNCLOS. Despite this, there are apparently easy ways to work around the issue of credibility. For example, regardless of the US not ratifying UNCLOS (ironically due to the seabed chapter) they have managed to apply for contracts through ‘subsidiaries’ by having a multinational mining company based within a different country (i.e., UK Seabed Resources is a subsidiary of the private US based company, Lockheed Martin) .
These wolves aren’t even bothering to dress up as sheep; they’ve simply been awarded the role of the shepherd.
When given a license, the contractor is issued a ‘block’ that is subdivided. These subdivisions are either a reserved area for a developing nation to operate within, with the help of the ISA, or a place where the ISA can operate its own commercial enterprise . Let me repeat that; a block can be subdivided, so that the authority regulating and governing these activities can implement its own operations in that area and, in doing so, benefit both commercial and financially. Would that not indicate the interests of ISA have become a little confused?
The ISA, overall, completely lacks transparency and accountability. The fact that this industry is so completely out of the public eye could not have been a mistake on their part. The authority that was given the means to protect and be the stewards of the ocean floor has shockingly become the master piece for the mining industry, clearly driven by monetary incentives and profit. These wolves aren’t even bothering to dress up as sheep; they’ve simply been awarded the role of the shepherd.
Why do we need Deep Sea Mining?
A global increase in consumption is set to lead to a doubling of material extraction by 2060 to 190 billion tonnes per year . This trend reflects the desire for higher living standards and increasing access to electronic goods, such as phones and laptops. These products rely on copper, cobalt, nickel and manganese, and as such it makes sense to exploit areas with large quantities of these resources (and in doing so, alleviating terrestrial mining pressures). Another driving force behind deep sea mining is the ‘transition to a low carbon & green economy’. This is because renewable technologies such as wind turbines or battery driven cars require these minerals in order to operate. In a time of a climate crisis, it is clearly essential that we shift away from fossil fuels towards low carbon technology. One article on deep sea mining reads:
‘Ultimately, humanity may indeed have a choice: accept some lasting damage to marine life, or give up on the goal of developing the technologies and infrastructure that we need to transition to from a fossil-fuel economy to a world powered by green and renewable energy’ .
However, this rhetoric being pushed by deep sea mining supporters, is completely dismissing the alternative options available . Therefore, Deep Sea Mining companies and the ISA to be so insistent on mining for a ‘green economy’, declaring that either we ‘give up on the goal of developing the technologies’ or simply ‘accept some lasting damage to marine life’ is frankly manipulative. Clearly neither of those options are suitable. Gaslighting the public into approving an industry that has the potential to incur unfathomable damages to our oceans is unacceptable.
A Sustainable Future
For a green economy to exist however, we need to fundamentally change our economic infrastructure, hopefully towards Donut and Circular Economies (alternative economic systems that ensure sustainable development). In the next decade, we would have to develop mineral recycling and place greater emphasis on furthering advances in technology and product design, that means we are not dependant on these minerals. It is paramount that we put this effort in though. It would be an unprecedented disaster to progress with Deep Sea Mining without giving humanity the chance to find a suitable alternative which can both protect our planet while both benefiting and supporting humankind.
Only a year ago Deep-Sea Mining was viewed as an inevitability driven by consumer demands, capitalistic forces and public obliviousness. A year ago, however, we lived in a very different world. Now, as the majority of the global north population have felt the effects of over exploitation and environmental destruction for the first time, in a way that has been nuanced previously and unfelt by the average western individual, we have greater public momentum behind restoring and protecting our planet than ever. Therefore, while my lecturer’s gloom was understandable in retrospect, I don’t believe it holds truth anymore.
With calls for a moratorium (whereby UNCLOS can enforce a delay or suspension to any activities) being supported by David Attenborough and just last week Volvo, Google and BMW vowing to not source minerals within their supply chains until environmental risks are completely understood, there is a swiftly developing case for Deep Sea Mining to, at the very least, be put on hold for the time being. This time would be essential in order to ensure adequate science and research are undertaken from independent organisations and research continues to look for suitable alternatives. My hope, is that this time will be just enough to allow humanity to bypass this monstrous industry completely, preventing it from ever taking place.
- M. Lodge. The International Seabed Authority and Deep Seabed Mining. United Nations: Accessed on 06/04/2021
- ISA. Exploration Contracts. International Seabed Authority: Accessed on 06/04/2021
- Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. The Main Player. savethehighseas.org: Accessed on 06/04/2021
- Blue Marine Foundation. In Clear Sight – Shining a ligh on the opaque deep-sea mining history. BLUE: 2020
- K. Moskvitch. Deep sea mining could save humanity from climate change disaster. But at what cost? Wired: Dec 2, 2018
- L. Pendleton et al. Chapter 4: Sustainable Economic Development and Deep Sea Mining. Deep Sea Minerals: Deep Sea and the Green Economy Vol. 2 – Secretariat of the Pacific Community: 2013