By Louella Losinio
The call for a moratorium on deep-sea mining is gaining traction as more countries and jurisdictions throw in their support for the movement.
While the wave of support shows promise, the tide has not yet completely turned. Not until the International Seabed Authority (ISA) considers the call to action as it goes through the second round of its 27th session in Jamaica starting in early July until this month.
The main agenda of the session is the development of the deep-sea mining code. ISA has until the middle of 2023 to finalize the regulations for the emerging industry.
The deadline was set in 2021 when Nauru invoked a clause in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that covers the adoption of the code within two years after the submission of an exploitation proposal by an interested party.
ISA derives its mandate to regulate and control the exploration and exploitation of the international seabed area from the convention which defines the international area as the “seabed and ocean floor and the subsoil beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.”
These resources are considered the “common heritage of mankind” under the convention. ISA’s regulatory mandate under the convention covers marine research, ocean conservation, and deep-sea mineral extraction.
Deep Sea Conservation Coalition has been keeping a close tab on the sessions. The global alliance of international organizations delivered their collective statement on the first day of the July session which outlined the importance of implementing a moratorium on deep-sea mining.
First, the coalition emphasized the damaging aspects of the process. “Deep-sea mining will damage the seabed and kill or harm living creatures of the deep-sea (the word used in Annex IV is ‘crush’ and smother life on the seabed and life on the nodules, cause damaging benthic sediment plume and a sediment plume from the return discharge, release toxic substances and harmful noise as well as other effects. The science we do have shown that effects from mining will be widespread, significant and long-lasting.”
Also, the coalition mentioned the lack of sufficient scientific information about the deep sea and the potential impact of these extractive activities to the area. “Deep-sea scientific knowledge is currently too sparse to avoid environmental risks and ensure the protection of the marine environment from deep-seabed mining.” Finally, they also mentioned “structural and governance issues” at the ISA as another reason.
At the session, countries such as France and Spain also supported the adoption of a precautionary approach to the process. Spain said, “The precautionary principle gives us the possibility of anticipating negative impacts on the marine environment, and its consequences, such as the loss of biodiversity. We have been hearing this repeatedly from the interested parties and it is time to find the appropriate legal channels to provide a response.”
Before the opening session of the 2nd United Nations Oceans Conference in July, Palau announced the launch of an alliance with Fiji and Samoa in support of setting up a moratorium on deep-sea mining. The move was supported by Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, World Wildlife Fund, and other groups.
Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. said at the side event, “We believe it is not worth the risk. We ask all of you to support that deep-sea mining increases the vulnerability of the seabed floor and marine life. How can we in our right minds say let’s go mining without knowing what the risks are?”
The Federated States of Micronesia also joined the alliance of countries in support of the moratorium. In a statement to the media, FSM President David Panuelo said that it is his intention to request the support of other members of the Pacific Islands Forum and other Pacific island countries to implement a moratorium.
Panuelo said Micronesia is very proud of its conservation-based commitments, such as the Micronesia Challenge and Blue Prosperity Micronesia. “Through these programs, the FSM has committed to protecting a minimum of 30 percent of our ocean territory, 50 percent of our coastal marine territory, and 50 percent of our terrestrial territory by 2030. We have also committed to effectively managing 100 percent of our ocean territory by 2030. It is unlikely we can effectively manage our ocean territory without being aware of the impacts of deep-sea mining, which I believe is an unsustainable solution.”
Even before these alliances, there have been other voices of dissent against deep sea mining. One of the strongest voices comes from the scientific community. More than 600 marine science and policy experts from 44 countries started a collective “Deep-Sea Mining Science Statement” in 2021 summarizing the need for a moratorium.
“As scientists, we deeply value evidence-based decision-making, especially in instances as consequential as a global decision to open up an entirely new frontier of the ocean to large-scale industrial resource exploitation. The sheer importance of the ocean to our planet and people, and the risk of large-scale and permanent loss of biodiversity, ecosystems and ecosystem functions, necessitates a pause of all efforts to begin mining of the deep sea, in line with the precautionary principle, and an acceleration of research so that we can gain a better understanding of what is at stake,” the statement read.
At the September 2021 IUCN World Conservation Congress, its members also supported a resolution endorsing a moratorium on deep-sea mining and the issuance of new exploitation and exploration contracts by ISA.