Support Urged for Moratorium on Deep Seabed Mining in International Waters

Clarion-Clipperton Zone
The Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a region in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico, is a potential location for deep seabed mining. Image via U.S. Geological Survey.

Six Canadian entities have relaunched a parliamentary petition calling on the federal government to help establish an international moratorium on deep seabed mining through the International Seabed Authority, based in Kingston, Jamaica.

The parliamentary petition was originally launched in June 2021 by MiningWatch Canada, Oceans North, the Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society, Nature Canada, Northern Confluence and West Coast Environmental Law, but was ended after the most recent national election.

Over 1,400 people have signed the petition, sponsored by Gord Johns, a member of Parliament with the New Democratic Party Caucus in British Columbia, and enough signatures have been gathered to assure that the petition will be presented for discussion in Parliament in Ottawa, according to Michael Bissonnette, an attorney in Vancouver, B.C. with West Coast Environmental Law.

The petition notes that the deep sea plays a key role in the health of marine ecosystems and species, making it indispensable for the sustenance of the ocean. The petition also contends that there is enormous scientific concern and technological uncertainty surrounding deep seabed mining, with scientific consensus that it will cause a net loss in biodiversity and irreparable environmental damage.

The ISA, made up of 167 member states and the European Union, is mandated under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to organize, regulate and control all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area for the benefit of mankind as a whole. Despite a broad range of domestic supporters, including major oil companies, environmental entities, the Maritime Law Association of the United States, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the World Shipping Council, the U.S. Congress has yet to approve signing on to the Law of the Sea Convention.

An Emerging Industry

Deep seabed mining is an emerging industry. While not currently occurring, mining interests, including a subsidiary of Canadian firm the Metals Company, are seeking to mine metals, including cobalt, manganese, nickel and copper, from the seafloor in both domestic and international waters worldwide. Efforts are underway at the ISA to establish mining regulations for the international deep seabed that could open up the seafloor to irreversible destruction as soon as 2024, the petitioners said.

Those interested in mining the deep seabed include the Metals Company subsidiary Nauru Ocean Resources, which wants to mine a region of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. The Metals Company was founded 2021 through the merger of DeepGreen and the Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corp.

The petitioners said that Canada should not allow an industry in international waters that is not currently permitted in Canada’s domestic waters. Provisions in Canada’s Fisheries Act limit the amount of suspended solids industry can release into water with fish, which effectively protects territorial waters from the practice.

The petitioners said that as an ISA member and global leader, Canada has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to conservation and join many other countries, as well as civil society groups, seeking to end deep-sea mining before it starts.

The subject of whether or not Nauru should be approved for deep seabed mining has been drawing increased attention in national and international publications. Articles have noted that in June 2021 the South Pacific island nation of Nauru, on eight square miles of island northeast of Papua New Guinea, invoked an obscure clause of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. That clause says that most of the seabed is a “common heritage of mankind.”

Under the so-called “two-year rule,” the ISA now has 24 months to finalize regulations that cover deep seabed mining. Unless this happens, the ISA is required to allow miners to begin work under whatever regulations are in place at the time. The EU Parliament, several Pacific nations and the renowned English broadcaster and natural historian Sir David Attenborough are among a growing number of governments, scientists, environmental entities and others calling for a moratorium on deep seabed mining.

On its website, the Metals Company contends that it is building “a carefully managed metal commons that will be used, recovered, and reused again and again—for millennia. No more metal taken from the planet.” The company argues that climate change poses the biggest threat to oceans and that deep seabed mining techniques can be safely extract the minerals without disrupting marine carbon sinks.

“No commercial collection of seafloor nodules can or will take place until rigorous, multiyear environmental impact studies are conducted, vetted, reviewed and evaluated,” the company states. “If this research shows that the risks outweigh the benefits, the global community, through the ISA, can decide that our project should not go ahead.”