Deep-sea mining

DSCC Asks

Although scientific exploration is continually advancing our knowledge of the deep ocean, it also reveals just how much there is still to discover and understand. Huge uncertainties make it very difficult to predict the magnitude of consequences of human activity in the deep ocean. It is therefore vital that we proceed with extreme caution. The deep ocean is an essential force within the Earth system and must be protected from harm.

In general, our approach to the consumption of mineral resources should be one of sustainability, reuse, improved product design and recycling of existing materials as a priority over exploration for new sources of minerals, including in the deep sea. If deep-sea mining is permitted to occur, it should not take place until appropriate and effective regulations for exploration and exploitation are in place to ensure that the full range of marine habitats, biodiversity and ecosystem functions are adequately and effectively protected, including through a network of marine protected areas and reserves.

The DSCC argues that wholesale commercial mining should be deferred until adequate conservation plans are in place, for the following reasons:

  • Even after three decades of work, researchers continue to find new hydrothermal vents in remote locations, new species, adaptations, behaviours and microhabitats – some in well-known settings. There is still much to learn.
  • There is no strategy in place to assess the cumulative impacts of mining. Mining one vent field may be comparable to a volcanic eruption or other natural process that can wipe out entire communities. The ability of a vent community to recover from mining events may depend on the events’ frequency as well as their scale. Moreover, scientists do not yet understand how vent systems re-populate, or anything about the complex dynamics of neighboring communities. The effect of continuous and cumulative mining operations may be very different from that of a single event.
  • We still do not know how best to mitigate the impacts of mining activities or how to restore habitats in the deep sea. Efforts by mining companies during and after extraction could conceivably alleviate some concerns about cumulative effects. But exactly which measures will work, and be affordable, is still unknown.
  • Measures for calculating and fairly allocating the economic costs and benefits of deep-sea mining activities are at best embryonic. If mining activities take off under the current system, there is a high likelihood that profits will accrue disproportionately to the countries and companies leading the charge, while costs and losses will be borne more broadly in a familiar “tragedy of the commons” scenario. This is likely to be to the detriment of developing countries.

The regulations and their framework must be robust and include:

  • clear conservation and management objectives
  • transparent and enforceable procedures including access to information, public participation and review procedures
  • measures based on the precautionary and ecosystem approaches and the polluter pays principle
  • publicly available, comprehensive, prior environmental impact assessments, based on extensive, high quality environmental baseline information and independent review procedures
  • strategic environmental management plans with well designed and resourced compliance and enforcement procedures
  • liability provisions, insurance and bonds, a redress and liability fund, and a sustainability fund.

They should also ensure that significant adverse impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems and ecologically or biologically significant areas are prevented and that other serious harm to the marine environment does not occur. Well-designed networks of protected areas must be established to achieve agreed objectives and cumulative impacts from mining and other activities and sectors must also be considered.

The development and adoption of any deep-sea mining exploration and exploitation regulations must be transparent and participatory, and any mining activities permitted thereafter must respect the common heritage of humankind and ensure real benefits to society as a whole. Management must be effective, accountable and transparent with ongoing monitoring, compliance, enforcement and transparent review.