Once, the cold, dark waters of the deep sea were thought to be empty, but now we know they are teeming with marine life. Underwater mountain chains, called seamounts, harbor abundant life. Hydrothermal vents gush warm, mineral-rich waters supporting a deep-sea food web based on chemical energy instead of sunlight. Strange creatures, many of which have yet to be identified or possibly even discovered, are all part of an underwater landscape unlike anywhere else on Earth.
But the deep seabed also contains rich mineral deposits, which may soon be exploited because of advances in marine technology. The effects that mining may have on marine ecosystems are as poorly understood as are the unique life forms of the deep.
More than half of the seabed lies beyond any national jurisdiction, meaning that no country can protect it. To govern these ocean areas, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) was established in 1994 under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The ISA is charged with regulating seabed mining in areas beyond national jurisdiction and ensuring that the environment is protected from harmful effects of that mining.
The ISA is formulating the complete set of rules that will govern deep-sea mining. Until these rules are finalized, scheduled by the end of 2018, no commercial mining for deep-sea minerals will be allowed in waters under the jurisdiction of the ISA. But already there has been substantial investment in the search for these minerals: The ISA has issued 23 contracts for exploration in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. However, it has also used scientific findings and precautionary measures to exclude from mining nine large areas of the high seas between Hawaii and Mexico. As the process moves forward, there is an opportunity to fully protect more special areas from mining.
The Pew Charitable Trusts will work internationally and, in particular, with the ISA to ensure that strong, science-based rules are adopted that balance well-regulated mining with the critically important task of protecting biodiversity in the deep ocean.