Call for countries to support a moratorium on deep-sea mining

Hoplostethus crassispinus is related to the Orange Roughy, or deep sea perch.

A rule that will allow deep seabed mining to start, even though environmental protections are not in place, was triggered in late June, exposing the deep ocean to potentially serious harm.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), an intergovernmental agency tasked with regulating the seabed, has announced that the Pacific Island of Nauru has triggered a rule that would allow mining to commence in two years.

Nauru is the sponsoring state for Nauru Ocean Resources Inc, (NORI), a subsidiary of DeepGreen, the company currently leading the charge to open up deep-sea mining. The move is likely aimed at facilitating the proposed multi-billion dollar ‘combination’ or merger of DeepGreen and SOAC and financing of the resulting company, intended to signal to potential investors and financiers that a contract from the ISA to mine is assured. It follows the publication of articles in Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and The Guardian in late June raising concerns about DeepGreen, and the rush to open up a whole new frontier, the deep seabed, to large-scale industrial resource extraction for profit. Since the publication of these articles, more than 350 marine science and policy experts from across the globe have signed up to a statement, calling for a moratorium on the emerging, destructive industry.

Matthew Gianni of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), a coalition of over 90 organizations worldwide, which is calling for a moratorium on mining in the deep ocean said: “It is surely no coincidence that this highly damaging move has happened at this time. Nauru’s action will enable strip mining in the deep ocean to start even before environmental regulations are in place. It’s time for member governments of the ISA to stop this mad rush to mine, cancel the contracts with DeepGreen, stop the rule being triggered, reform the ISA and call a halt to this retrograde, industrial-era approach to resource extraction and destruction of our world.”

If a sponsoring State tells the International Seabed Authority (ISA) that a company it has sponsored, a so-called ‘contractor’, intends to apply for an exploitation contract to undertake deep-sea mining, the ISA shall adopt rules, regulations, and procedures for deep-sea mining within two years. If the rules, regulations and procedures are not adopted within two years, the ISA shall grant a provisional contract to the contractor to mine anyway, based on any ‘provisional’ rules, regulations and procedures in place.

“The ISA has been unable to meet since 2020. This appears to use the international pandemic to bypass decision-making by curtailing the prevailing norms of due process, inclusivity and good governance,” said international lawyer Duncan Currie. Invoking the 2 year trigger rule risks shattering the reputation of the ISA itself. It is hard to believe that DeepGreen, and Nauru, would be so irresponsible.”

If it is permitted to go forward, deep-sea mining would result in large-scale destruction of deep-sea ecosystems. If all 17 licenses currently issued by the ISA in the CCZ for exploration were licensed for commercial mining, the overall impact to the seabed would likely extend from some 350,000-800,000 km2 based on recent estimates from scientists. The destructive extractive industry may lead to the potential loss of new medicines (a crucial COVID-19 test was developed from an enzyme isolated from a microbe that lives in deep-sea hydrothermal vents) and drive species to extinction before they have even been discovered. Scientists are also warning of the potential negative impacts deep-sea mining may have on fisheries, including tuna fisheries, as well as whales and other deep-diving oceanic species.

In late June, prospective miners, DeepGreen, finally admitted in a regulatory filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, that “impacts on biodiversity and the ocean ecosystem cannot, and may never be, completely and definitively known” and that “it is unknown whether the impact of nodule collection on global biodiversity will be less significant than those observed and measured with respect to land-based mining for a similar amount of required metal”.

DeepGreen, which is in the process of a merger with a so-called SPAC to result in a company to be called The Metals Company, has used arguments that Pacific Island states will make money from deep-sea mining and that there is popular local buy-in for the activity. There isn’t.

Taholo Kami, Pacific Island Environmentalist based in Fiji said: “This is not about green growth, the good of the Islands, or natural solutions; this is about exploitation of vulnerable Pacific Island countries and short term gain for a corporation based in Canada and their Swiss, Danish and American investors. Deep-sea mining can be destructive to an ocean already under severe threat and an immediate moratorium is needed to ensure our countries can make the right decisions for a healthy ocean that sustains our people and our way of life.”

The DSCC is calling on the countries that are members of the International Seabed Authority to stand up and support a moratorium on deep-sea mining. The Coalition also urges the ISA to immediately cancel the two exploration contracts of companies which are effectively controlled by DeepGreen, rather than by the sponsoring States, and put a hold on the issuing of any new exploration contracts.

Sian Owen, DSCC Director said: “Countries need to put the brakes on the ISA’s plans to open the deep ocean, one of the last great frontiers on our planet, to large-scale industrial mining. There are serious questions to be answered, not least by the ISA which is responsible for entering into contracts with companies seeking to exploit the deep sea, our global commons.”

Many concerns have been raised about the ISA, including its decision-making processes, in-built conflicts of interest, and its anachronistic 1970s era extractive mandate. This is in addition to the concern that, far from being a body working to protect the global commons of the deep sea for the benefit of humankind, it largely operates as a miners’ club pushing for exploitation to commence.