Seabed Mining (SBM) is a growing industrial field that involves extracting submerged minerals and deposits from the sea floor. To date, mining for sand, tin and diamonds has been generally limited to shallow coastal waters. Seabed Mining (SBM) should be distinguish from Deep Sea Mining (DSM) that occurs at a depth of 200 meters and greater. DSM is an experimental industrial field which involves extracting mineral deposits from the continental shelf and Area under the high seas.  There are interests both for and against seabed mining, however, the science around the environmental impact of DSM is incomplete and unproven. In addition, there is also new interest to explore Deep Sea Mining (DSM), which requires intensive, destructive processes to retrieve deposits laid down over thousands of years around underwater hot springs or hydrothermal vents in the ocean.

Japan was the first country to successfully mine its seabed, tapping into a deposit of mineral resources 1,600 meters on its continental shelf off the coast of Okinawa in 2017. Other areas of current most likely occur off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The general idea is to remove gold and copper from inactive hydrothermal vent zones at depths between 1000 and 1500 meters. The majority of current exploration contracts allow companies within the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of a nation state. However, most of the marine deposits of minerals prized by world markets are found beyond the EEZs, on the seabeds of the High Seas.

The exploration and exploitation of these High Seas mineral deposits is governed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) under authority conferred by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The ISA has awarded TK exclusive Exploration Contracts to member nations seeking to inventory mineral deposits and assess their commercial potential within a defined area. In theory, holders of Exploration Contracts would later seek Exploitation Contracts to conduct mining operations. That has not yet happened, largely because world prices have not risen high enough to justify the considerable costs.

Spurred by the Nautilus example and by advances in deep-sea technologies, ISA member-states have directed the ISA Secretariat to hasten the drafting of environmental regulations that would govern Exploitation Contracts

 DSM does not yet exist in the Area. To date, however, the International Seabed Authority (“ISA”) has issued twenty-nine contracts that authorize them to explore for 15 years.  This involves three different types of mineral deposits in areas totaling more than 1.3 million square kilometers.

The drafting of ISA Exploitation Contract regulations is regarded as a crucial exercise, both by would-be exploiters and by marine conservationists. The final regulations will govern all seabed mining in the High Seas. But it will also affect EEZ seabeds, since UNCLOS requires its signatory states to govern their seabeds in accordance with ISA standards. The next half-decade therefore presents a unique opportunity in human affairs: a chance to devise a regulatory regime to govern an important extractive industry before it begins.

Little is known about the habitat and ecosystem of the deep seabed. Thus, before a proper impact assessment can be conducted, there first needs to be a collection of baseline data including a survey and mapping.  Even absent this information, the equipment will involve gouging the seabed, causing plumes of sediment in the water column and then resettling in surrounding area. The scraping of the ocean floor to extract the nodules could destroy deep sea habitats of living marine species and cultural heritage in the area. We do know that deep sea vents contain marine life that may be particularly significant. The plume of sediment from mining could smother marine life that we don’t know are plentiful or may be made extinct. Some of these species are uniquely adapted to the lack of sunlight and high pressure of deep water, may be very valuable for research and development of medicines, protective gear and other important uses. The is simply not enough known about these species, their habitat and related ecosystems to establish an adequate baseline from which there could be a proper environmental assessment much less develop measures to protect them and monitor the impact of mining.

Getting Started

  1. Authoritative Intros. Basic surveys of SBM in general and Hydrothermal Vent Zones in particular are provided by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The United Nations Environment Program provides an excellent overview. More detailed introductions – though thoroughly comprehensible by non-specialists – are provided by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community.
  2. ISA Essentials. The International Seabed Authority website is indispensable. It’s where you go for both official documents and the scientific papers and workshop discussions that wield gratifyingly strong influence on ISA decision-making.
  3. Pacific Treasure Chest. The Secretariat of the Pacific Community provides an excellent array of materials that synthesize geological, oceanographic, economic, legal, and ecological aspects of SBM. The papers are the product of a European Union / Pacific Community cooperative enterprise. Clearly written, helpfully illustrated, thankfully judicious.
  4. Conservation-Minded Scientists. DOSI (Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative) is a good introductory source of SBM-relevant scientific papers and general information. The well-endowed  EU-sponsored MIDAS Project is where to go to further your education.
  5. Advocates. The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition adopts an overall stance of commitment to the Precautionary Principle and speaks in modulated tones. Among civil society organizations concerned with the environmental damages of seabed mining, the most prominent and active may be the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, an Australia- based global federation of NGOs and individuals (and a TOF-sponsored organization). DSMC has helped organize meetings and demonstrations in Pacific Island states and recently presented a formal submission to the International Seabed Authority that calls for a moratorium on ISA contract issuances until strict precautionary-minded environmental regulations are approved.

Recent News

Alberts, E. C. (2020, June 16) “Deep-sea mining: An environmental solution or impending catastrophe?” Mongabay News. Retrieved from: https://news.mongabay.com/2020/06/deep-sea-mining-an-environmental-solution-or-impending-catastrophe/
While deep-sea mining has not started in any part of the world, 16 international mining companies have contracts to explore the seabed for minerals within the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, and other companies have contracts to explore for nodules in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific Ocean. A new report by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign and Mining Watch Canada suggests that polymetallic nodule mining would negatively impact ecosystems, biodiversity, fisheries, and the social and economic dimensions of Pacific island nations, and that this mining requires a precautionary approach.

“Nautilus Minerals admits Papua New Guinea is a sea bed mining experiment.” 1 June 2016. Media Release from the Papua New Guinean Alliance of Solwara Warriors and the Deep Sea Mining Campaign.
As Nautilus Minerals holds its AGM in Toronto today (6/1/16), the Papua New Guinean Alliance of Solwara Warriors and the Deep Sea Mining Campaign encourage investors to think carefully about holding shares in this company. The 2015 Annual Information Form lodged with the Canadian Securities Administrators reveals that the world first licensed sea bed mine is in fact a huge environmental, financial and technological experiment.

“World Bank Report Urges Caution in Deep Sea Mining in the Pacific.” 28 April 2016. Press Release from the World Bank.
A World Bank report recommends caution to communities in the Pacific when engaging in deep sea mining ventures as it will likely bring about irreparable damage to the ecosystem as well as the society due to the current lack of established governence.

SMD Delivers Deep Sea Mining Vehicles. Hydro International. 2 February 2016.
Subsea engineering company SMD has passed a significant milestone as the MV Happy Delta, loaded with the world’s first deep sea mining vehicles, has left the Port of Tyne in the UK. 

Broad, William. “The 40,000-Mile Volcano,” The New York Times. 12 January 2016.
An extremely interesting and engaging aricle about the midocean ridges, and the life that resides there. Recently scientists have inaugurated a major new effort to study these deep sea volcanoes. Off the West Coast, they have wired up a highly active ridge with hundreds of sensors and cameras, as well as cables that flash the readings to shore. The ocean observatory is to operate for at least a quarter century. This month (January), the surge of data is hitting the Internet. “Hundreds of scientists around the globe will now be able to monitor one of Earth’s most restless and enigmatic features as effortlessly as reading their email.”

World’s first deep sea mining proposal ignores consequences of its impacts on oceans. (29 September 2015). Media Release. Deep Sea Mining Campaign, Economist at Large, MiningWatch Canada, EarthWorks, Oasis Earth. 
As the deep sea mining industry chases investors at the Asia Pacific Deep Sea Mining Summit, a new critique by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign reveals indefensible flaws in the Environmental and Social Benchmarking Analysis of the Solwara 1 project commissioned by Nautilus Minerals. Find the full report here.

Annotated Bibliography

“Nautilus Minerals admits Papua New Guinea is a sea bed mining experiment.” 1 June 2016. Media Release from the Papua New Guinean Alliance of Solwara Warriors and the Deep Sea Mining Campaign.
As Nautilus Minerals holds its AGM in Toronto today (6/1/16), the Papua New Guinean Alliance of Solwara Warriors and the Deep Sea Mining Campaign encourage investors to think carefully about holding shares in this company. The 2015 Annual Information Form lodged with the Canadian Securities Administrators reveals that the world first licensed sea bed mine is in fact a huge environmental, financial and technological experiment.

“World Bank Report Urges Caution in Deep Sea Mining in the Pacific.” 28 April 2016. Press Release from the World Bank.
A World Bank report recommends caution to communities in the Pacific when engaging in deep sea mining ventures as it will likely bring about irreparable damage to the ecosystem as well as the society due to the current lack of established governence.

SMD Delivers Deep Sea Mining Vehicles. Hydro International. 2 February 2016.
Subsea engineering company SMD has passed a significant milestone as the MV Happy Delta, loaded with the world’s first deep sea mining vehicles, has left the Port of Tyne in the UK. 

Broad, William. “The 40,000-Mile Volcano,” The New York Times. 12 January 2016.
An extremely interesting and engaging aricle about the midocean ridges, and the life that resides there. Recently scientists have inaugurated a major new effort to study these deep sea volcanoes. Off the West Coast, they have wired up a highly active ridge with hundreds of sensors and cameras, as well as cables that flash the readings to shore. The ocean observatory is to operate for at least a quarter century. This month (January), the surge of data is hitting the Internet. “Hundreds of scientists around the globe will now be able to monitor one of Earth’s most restless and enigmatic features as effortlessly as reading their email.”

World’s first deep sea mining proposal ignores consequences of its impacts on oceans. (29 September 2015). Media Release. Deep Sea Mining Campaign, Economist at Large, MiningWatch Canada, EarthWorks, Oasis Earth. 
As the deep sea mining industry chases investors at the Asia Pacific Deep Sea Mining Summit, a new critique by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign reveals indefensible flaws in the Environmental and Social Benchmarking Analysis of the Solwara 1 project commissioned by Nautilus Minerals. Find the full report here.

Blue Growth Opportunities for marine and maritime sustainable growth Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions COM(2012)
Comprehensive digest of EU-financed information that showcases examples of the pro-mining and anti-mining sentiments of the schizophrenic European approach.

“Deep-ocean mineral deposits as a source of critical metals for high- and green-technology application: Comparison with land based resources,”James R. Hein, Kira Mizell, Andrea Koschinsky, Tracey A. Conrad Ore Geology Reviews (Impact Factor: 3.38). 12/2012; 51:1-14. DOI: 10.1016/j.oregeorev.2012.12.001
Informed statement of the basic case for DSM as a necessary element of green tech growth.

EPA Staff Report EEZ000006 Chatham Rock Phosphate Limited Marine Consent Application. August 2014. New Zealand Government, Wellington, New Zealand, pp. 1-175.
Watchdog at work: New Zealand’s EPA says that proposals to conduct phosphate mining at 400 meters deep in the Chatham Rise area of the country’s EEZ are unacceptable.

Global Ocean Commission (November 2013) Policy Options Paper #5. Strengthening deep seabed mining regulation.
Judicious summary of recommendations on how to govern SBM. Solid work.

Hannington, Mark, et al. The Abundance of seafloor massive sulfide deposits. Geology, December 2011
Likely sources of undersea strategic minerals.

International Seabed Authority. Developing a Regulatory Framework for Mineral Exploitation in the Area: A discussion Paper on the Development and Implementation of a Payment Mechanism in the Area for Consideration by Members of the Authority and All Stakeholders.
Not for the faint-hearted: an exhaustive consideration of how SBM can support the costs of its regulators.

International Seabed Authority. Environmental management plan for the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, adopted July 2012
Precedentially significant ISA document to govern manganese nodule prospecting in the Pacific.

International Seabed Authority. Environmental management plan for Clarion-Clipperton Zone. A partnership approach.
The process through which the plan was produced.

Luick, John L. Physical Oceanographic Assessment of the Nautilus EIS for the Solwara 1 Project. November 2012. Prepared for the Deep Sea Mining Campaign (affiliated with Friends of the Earth Australia)
This report reviews the oceanographic elements of the Nautilus Solwara 1 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and concludes that the EIS downplays the risks facing local communities and the marine environment.  The report conveys the need for heavy assessment and input from diverse audiences in environmental impact statements.

Mengerink, K.J., et al., 2014. “A Call for Deep-Ocean Stewardship”
Collective public pronouncement by leading marine scientists.

MIDAS, 2014. “Deep-Sea Mining:An Introduction.”
Excellent summary.

Michelle Allsopp, et al. “Review of the Current State of Development and the Potential for Environmental Impacts of Seabed Mining Operations.” Greenpeace Research Laboratories Technical Report (Review) 03-2013: 50pp.
A useful compendium of information from a good-SBM-is-no-SBM point of view.

Rosembaum, Helen. Out of Our Depth: Mining the Ocean Floor in Papua New Guinea. October 2011.
The report details serious environmental and social impacts expected as a result of unprecedented mining of the ocean floor in Papua New Guinea. It highlights the deep flaws in Nautilus Minerals EIS like the insufficient testing by the company in the toxicity of its process on vent species, and has not sufficiently considered toxic effects on organisms in the marine food chain.

Helen Rosenbaum, Helen and Grey, Francis. Accountability ZERO: A Critique Of The Nautilus Minerals Environmental And Social Benchmarking Analysis Of The Solwara 1 Project.  
As the deep sea mining industry chases investors at the Asia Pacific Deep Sea Mining Summit, this critique, endorsed by a coalition of economists, scientists and civil society groups, reveals indefensible flaws in the Environmental and Social Benchmarking Analysis of the Solwara 1 project commissioned by Nautilus Minerals. The proposed Solwara 1 deep sea mine, situated in the Bismarck Sea of Papua New Guinea, is the world’s first to receive an operating license.

Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) Series

SPC-EU Deep Sea Minerals Project
1A – Sea-Floor Massive Sulphides A physical, biological, environmental, and technical review
1B – Manganese Nodules A physical, biological, environmental, and technical review
1C – Cobalt-rich Ferromanganese Crusts A physical, biological, environmental, and technical review
2 – Deep Sea Minerals and the Green Economy

Invaluable set of resources.

United Nations Center for Biological Diversity. “Statement by the Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity on the Occasion of 21st Session of the International Seabed Authority.” 13-24 July 2015, Kingston, Jamaica.
The CBD announces its plan to work with the ISA to provide the best available scientific information on marine and coastal biodiversity for effective and legitimate environmental impact assessments.

Van Dover, C.L., 2014. Impacts of anthropogenic disturbances at deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems: A review. Marine Environmental Research (0).
Indispensable review from the world’s leading expert on hydrothermal vent zones.

Zhou, 2016 China’s deep-sea mission to mine the wealth beneath the ocean floor

China is stepping up activity in one of the final frontiers of mineral wealth – the remote seabeds lying kilometres beneath the Indian and Pacific oceans.

BACK TO RESEARCH