Time for a deep-sea mining moratorium

Sian Owen, Director of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition

The clock is ticking for the ocean. This month, the meetings of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in Kingston, Jamaica could see the approval of the world’s first major deep-sea mining operation.

The ISA Council could give large-scale deep-sea mining the go-ahead following the triggering of its ‘two-year loophole’ by the island State of Nauru on behalf of the speculative commercial operator The Metals Company (TMC). Meanwhile, a tidal wave of international opposition to deep-sea mining – from scientists, governments, politicians, the fishing industry, Indigenous Peoples, business, the financial sector and civil society – continues to build.

The controversial loophole stipulates that if the ISA has not agreed to mining regulations within two years of a State requesting a license for a proposed deep-sea mining project, then the work could be provisionally approved without regulations. However, a growing number of governments are saying that the draft mining code is nowhere near completion and that it would be reckless to open the ocean to a vast new extractive industry, where we are far from fully understanding its potential impacts on species, ecosystems, the wider ocean, and thus the planet as a whole. 


TMC wants to mine polymetallic nodules which lie across the abyssal plains of the Pacific Ocean’s Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ) – a flat sediment-covered region that supports high levels of biodiversity. The nodules are millions of years old, provide attachment sites for numerous species, and are essential for the integrity of the food web. In fact, more than 50% of species in the CCZ are thought to depend on them. This scale of destruction would be disastrous for ocean life. Removing the nodules could lead to an ‘irreversible’ loss of ecosystem functions and species. Given that over 90% of the species found in the CCZ are so far undescribed by science, we wouldn’t even fully understand what was being destroyed.

The nodules in the Clarion Clipperton Zone are millions of years old, provide attachment sites for numerous species, and are essential for the integrity of the food web. In fact, more than 50% of species in the CCZ are thought to depend on them.

Scientists are clear that tremendous gaps remain in our knowledge of the deep sea. But we do know that, if the industry were to proceed, the proposed strip-mining would permanently destroy the areas mined and the effects would be felt across much wider areas. Moreover, a recent new report from Planet Tracker warns that “trying to restore the permanent damage to biodiversity caused by deep-sea mining would cost so much that no one could afford to pay for it.”

As for the business case, the UN Environment Programme stated categorically that deep-sea mining is not part of the sustainable blue economy. And just last month, the European Academy of Sciences concluded, “…the pressure for mining is driven by industry and economic interests rather than demands from the transition to a green economy. For instance, venture businesses seek new business opportunities; some nation states may seek new sources of revenue or markets to replace declining industries based on fossil fuels; technology developers may seek new markets and sources of public funding for assets and expertise in danger of becoming stranded as their fossil-fuel-driven business declines.” In other words, claims that the green transition depends on deep-sea mining are greenwash.

In other words, claims that the green transition depends on deep-sea mining are greenwash.

Fortunately, ever more States are deciding to prevent permanent damage to our deep ocean – so critical, so fragile and so in need of restoration from damage already incurred – and support a moratorium. In the last year, 16 governments have come out in favour of such a halt to the nascent industry, starting with Palau, Fiji and Samoa – frontline ‘large ocean’ states for whom a healthy ocean is fundamental. They have since been joined by Costa Rica, Chile, Spain, France, Germany, New Zealand and others, with Switzerland and Ireland the most recent champions this past week. The number is set to grow.

With the historic High Seas Treaty adopted in March, committing nations to work together to protect and preserve  biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, a blind rush to open a vast new frontier of extraction cannot be justified. Governments serious about their ocean commitments and obligations under this and other agreements such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Convention on Biological Diversity must show courage in adhering to the precautionary principle

A precedent exists for States cooperating to protect biodiversity from the drive for economic growth. Under the Madrid Protocol, the nations of the world came together to designate Antarctica as ‘a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science’. All activities relating to mineral resources are prohibited.

It’s time to take the same approach to another of our planet’s last great wildernesses – the deep ocean. When the ISA meets from 10-28 July, governments can and must press the ‘pause’ button on mining activities. Today, the risks associated with mining the deep far outweigh any potential benefits for humanity. We should act accordingly.

You can help! The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition has launched a new website where you can click to send an email or tweet to your government and ask them to draw a line in the sand by supporting a moratorium. The threat of deep-sea mining looms, but together we can stop it.

About the author:

Sian Owen has coordinated the global strategy for the DSCC since 2011. She is founder and principal consultant of Sustainability Options Consulting, working to accelerate change toward a new global economic system based on triple bottom line principles: people, planet and profit. Sian’s role with the DSCC draws on extensive experience in program development, policy and partnerships, both as an independent and from eight years with WWF International’s Global Marine Programme.

Twitter: @siankowen

This is a guest blog and may not necessarily represent the views of other RISE UP network members or RISE UP as a whole. It is only through open dialogue and a diversity of ideas that we will arrive at the solutions necessary to restore Ocean health.

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Date Published: 6th July 2023