Technological advances in robotics coupled with dwindling land-based mineral deposits is leading to what conservationists call a “marine industrial revolution.” Deep seabed mining activity has increased sharply over the past five years as there is a rising demand for cobalt, copper and gold, elements required in manufacturing smartphones. This demand has led the International Seabed Authority (“ISA”), the United Nations agency established to organize, regulate and control all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, has issued 27 exploration contracts to date. The majority of these 15-year contracts were issued since 2011 and allow for mineral surveying on greater than 390,000 square miles of seabed in the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Both private companies and governments recognize the lucrative opportunities available in deep sea mining. Michael Lodge, deputy secretary-general of the ISA has stated that “[t]he concentrations of minerals that [miners] find in the seabed are very much richer than what’s left on land. So demand is only going to increase.” However, despite the abundance of seabed minerals, scientists from across the globe urged the ISA to temporary halt the granting of new mining contracts until areas of “marine protected areas” are established near areas set aside for mining. Both the commercial and conservation issues related to deep sea mining were discussed at an ISA forum earlier this month.
According to Professor Richard Steiner, Conservation Biologist of Oasis Earth,“[t]he issue of deep sea mining is not just for scientists and mining companies. The debate has to be much broader and completely transparent. Presently, the ISA and sponsoring governments receive scientific advice and input primarily from companies with vested interests in a particular policy or regulatory result of the Authority. The authority’s decision making processes must be open to the participation of civil society and independent scientists.”
Douglas McCauley, an ecologist and conservation biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has stated that current proposals for the world’s oceans in the near future “look uncomfortably similar to what [people] did to land in the 1700s and 1800s.” He also noted that the increase in land-based industrialization caused an increase in animal extinction rates, and that increased deep sea mining would likely do the same.
Despite scientists’ warnings, the ISA recently granted its latest exploration contract to China Minmetals Corp., sponsored by Beijing. This 28,100 square mile permit in the Pacific Ocean makes China the country with the most permits from ISA, totalling four.
The United States is not a member of ISA as Congress has argued its policies could potentially impinge on U.S. military and economic sovereignty.