DEEP SEA MININGWhat is it and where is it happening?
Deep sea mining proposes to transform the world’s oceans into commercial extraction zones
There is a growing interest in the vast quantities of metal-rich mineral deposits found in areas of the sea below 200 meters. This is largely due to depleting terrestrial deposits for metals such as copper, nickel, aluminium, manganese, zinc, lithium and cobalt, coupled with rising demand for these metals to produce high-tech applications such as smartphones and green technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels and electric storage batteries.
Currently, there is no operating deep sea mine in the world, however, there is an intense and growing interest in minerals exploration both in national and international waters with over 1.5 kilometres of the Pacific Ocean under exploration leasehold.
Globally civil society, scientists, academia, governments, intergovernmental organisations and businesses are increasingly aware of the risks of DSM, with more stakeholders calling for a ban or moratorium on DSM.
Miners have focused on three deep sea environments types to explore
Abyssal plains 3,500–6,500 metres below the sea surface contain metallic nodules that form over millions of years as minerals precipitate around fish teeth, bones or other small organic objects. These deposits contain nickel, manganese, copper, zinc, cobalt, and other minerals.
These regions are some of the quietest ecosystems on the planet. They are home to polychaete worms, crustaceans, sponges, sea cucumbers, starfish, brittlestars, sea urchins and various deep sea fish, as well as countless microbial species and tiny sediment-dwelling creatures.
Another type of mineral deposit is the metal-rich crust that covers seamounts, which rise thousands of metres above the abyssal plains. These coatings are packed with high-value metals, such as cobalt, platinum, and molybdenum.
Crusts generally grow at the rate of one molecular layer every one to three months, or 1-6 millimetres per million years, one of the slowest natural processes on earth. Consequently, it can take up to 60 million years to form a thick crust. The seamount environment is dominated by corals, sponges, and other filter feeders, as well as tuna, sharks, dolphins, and sea turtles.
The third form of mineral deposit is found in massive sulfides. These are situated at depths of depths from 1,500 metres to 3,000 metres. Rich in copper, lead, zinc, gold, and silver these ores form around vents of superheated water that occur along the volcanic ridges known as ‘the ring of fire’ that runs through ocean basins.
The hydrothermal vents support a great deal of biodiverse life including the blind yeti crab, known for its blond, furry hairdo, and the scaly-foot snail, which protects its soft interior with an iron shell. The scaly-foot snail is the first deep sea animal to be declared endangered due to mining activities.
Hydrothermal vents support a great deal of biodiverse life including the blind yeti crab, known for its blond, furry hairdo, and the scaly-foot snail, which protects its soft interior with an iron shell and is the first deep sea animal to be declared endangered due to mining activities.
Deep Sea Mining in International Waters
Most of the world’s oceans are located outside national jurisdictions. In these areas, deep sea mining is subject to the jurisdiction of the International Seabed Authority (ISA).
The ISA, a small, independent mining agency headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica exercises administrative control over 50% of the planet’s ocean floor. Its membership comprises 167 countries, as well as the EU. The ISA has granted 31 exploration deep sea mining permits to a limited group of countries that sponsor private companies covering areas of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, totalling 1.3 million square kilometres.
These members are signatories to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international treaty that legally redefined the zoning, function, and significance of the world’s oceans in the 1980s.
The Deep Sea Mining Campaign is a member of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) and has been attending the ISA negotiations for many years. You can follow the negotiations at the DSCC International Seabed Authority Tracker
Deep Sea Mining in National Waters
Outside of international waters countries regulate and oversee deep sea activities taking place within their maritime borders called Economic Exclusive Zones (EEZ).
The world’s first deep sea mine to be given an operating licence is in the EEZ of Papua New Guinea (PNG). The Solwara 1 project, was formerly being developed by Canadian company Nautilus Minerals to was planned to mine mineral-rich hydrothermal vents, deposits of copper, gold, zinc and silver from the Bismarck Sea of PNG. However, due to fierce opposition from local coastal communities, environmental concerns and financing woes the company liquidated in 2019 leaving the PNG government $157m out of pocket.
The total failure of this deep sea mining project of PNG’s spurred calls for ban and moratoria against seabed mining. These can be declared on a nationwide basis or piecemeal by region. New Zealand, Mexico, Namibia, Washington State in the US, and the Northern Territory of Australia have rejected deep sea mining following the precautionary principle.
Thanks to a dedicated global campaign 24 states globally are calling for a ban or moratorium as of January 2024.
Indigenous Peoples and organisations across the Pacific have called for the legal norm of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) to be applied to deep sea mining proposals in all jurisdictions. A growing number of Pacific leaders are calling for a ban on deep sea mining.