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.
Our WorkView All
Thousands of meters below the ocean’s surface live the creatures of the deep seabed. The ocean floor is one of the least explored areas in the world. While it once was thought to be lifeless, new discoveries reveal many species thriving in waters so deep that in some cases self-generating bioluminescence provides the only light. Read More
The deepest parts of the world’s ocean feature ecosystems found nowhere else on Earth. They provide habitats for multitudes of species, many yet to be named. In these vast, lightless regions are also found deposits of valuable minerals in concentrations richer than most on land. Deep sea extraction technologies have now developed to the point where exploration of seabed minerals can give... Read More
Earlier this year, the International Seabed Authority (ISA)—the United Nations body that governs the ocean floor beyond national jurisdiction—asked the people and organizations that follow its work to fill out a survey evaluating its performance. Public officials, scientists, conservationists, and prospective miners received and completed questionnaires. The ISA then called on an... Read More