When countries began to contemplate seabed mining decades ago, their representatives assumed that the ocean bottom was featureless and lifeless, uninteresting except for the minerals that might be recovered from it. Now we know that the seabed is, in fact, a varied tapestry of physical features and marine life rather than a desolate expanse.
With some governments and companies pushing to mine the seabed, we need a system in place to ensure that seabed mining does not happen unless the marine environment can be protected. And because the density and type of life—and connections between habitats and species—vary from place to place, some policies should be location-specific.
The International Seabed Authority (ISA), which oversees all mining in areas beyond national jurisdiction, can establish such policies by creating regional environmental management plans (REMPs). As part of a broader code of mining rules and regulations, REMPs offer geographically targeted environmental protections in the form of regional management goals, thresholds for mining impacts such as noise and plumes, and protected areas while also considering other ocean uses. In short, the ISA should permit no mining in a region that does not have an effective REMP in place.
However, the ISA does not yet have a defined process for developing satisfactory REMPs.
In 2020, the ISA held a series of virtual workshops with selected scientific and regulatory experts to develop REMPs for several areas where exploration for seabed minerals is now underway. After additional consultations with stakeholders, these REMPs may be adopted by the ISA and become part of a code that the authority is developing to govern all phases of seabed mining activity beyond national borders.
In late November and early December, I took part in one such workshop to develop a REMP for the Northern Mid-Atlantic Ridge, with a focus on polymetallic sulfide deposits. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is a 10,000-mile underwater mountain chain running north-south from Iceland nearly to Antarctica, characterized by hydrothermal vents that spew superheated, mineral-rich water from beneath the ocean floor. The towers formed from these minerals could be among the first targets for seabed mining.
Participants in the workshop—the latest in a long string of meetings meant to lay a foundation for the mid-Atlantic REMP—made some important progress toward a comprehensive REMP, which would be the first adopted by the ISA in nearly a decade and could set an important precedent for other regions. But critical gaps in the plan remain. Here are some recommendations that the ISA should consider not only in the mid-Atlantic but for other REMPs as well.
Standardize the REMP process
The ISA Secretariat has issued REMP guidance, including a list of suggested elements to be included in REMPs. However, ISA members have not yet agreed on a standard approach for developing REMPs or requirements for their content. Last year, Germany, the Netherlands, and Costa Rica submitted a joint proposal to the ISA that would specify the types of expertise and steps needed to design a REMP, the methods for gathering stakeholder input, and the process for periodic reviews once a plan is in place—but it was not adopted. This framework should be reconsidered, as it could transform the current ad hoc process into one that is more precise and predictable.
Ensure effective protection of the environment
The 2020 virtual workshop for the mid-Atlantic REMP built on a 2019 in-person workshop in Evora, Portugal, that focused on synthesizing scientific data to develop REMP recommendations for the region. The Evora workshop participants recommended that the mid-Atlantic REMP incorporate area-based management measures, including:
- Sites in need of protection: Mining impacts should be prohibited in small areas of ecological importance, such as active vent systems, that should be identified using criteria like those employed by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization to identify vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) for protection from bottom fisheries. Among these criteria are an ecosystem’s uniqueness or rarity, and its significance as habitat. In the mid-Atlantic, the 2020 workshop participants recommended 11 sites in need of protection thus far; others are likely to emerge as exploration of the seabed continues, reinforcing the need for ongoing review and amendment.
- Areas in need of protection: Large areas that are representative of a region’s biodiversity and help ensure its ecological integrity and connectivity should be fully protected from both direct mining and the impacts of mining that might occur outside those areas. The parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have developed criteria to identify ecologically or biologically significant areas that may require enhanced conservation and management measures, with notable parallels to the VME criteria. The CBD criteria could form a basis for identifying larger areas in need of protection from mining. Participants in the 2019 Evora mid-Atlantic workshop recommended three fracture zones (areas where tectonic plates are offset, forming canyons in the seafloor) thus far; further discussion is needed among scientists and stakeholders to establish a network of ecologically and biologically representative protected areas before any commercial-scale mining activity takes place.
- Sites and areas in need of precaution: Small and large areas that may be ecologically important and require heightened precaution will need to be evaluated to determine what protective measures are required. Although precaution in this context has not been defined, one possibility is that contractors could be obligated to ensure that mining activity in or near these places would produce no significant adverse impacts. Examples of such areas include possible active vents that have not yet been verified and habitats for sensitive cold-water octocorals.
Workshop participants also discussed how every REMP should include region-specific thresholds and parameters to limit environmental impacts such as sediment plumes, noise, and light. These controls will rely in part on data about the vulnerabilities of the area’s marine life. If even preliminary thresholds cannot be set because of a lack of scientific information, the REMPs should require additional data-gathering and set a process for revising initial thresholds before any commercial-scale activity takes place.
Although participants in the 2020 workshop discussed how to implement these recommendations, it is still unclear whether and how the ISA will include them in the REMP and, if so, to what degree. The workshop organizers did not take up certain recommendations, including prohibiting mining on active vents, deeming it premature to discuss such topics during the exploration phase. It is unclear at what point the ISA believes it would be appropriate to bring these recommendations forward again.
Consider contractors’ obligations
The mid-Atlantic REMP must also specify plans and clarify timelines for regional monitoring; detail responsibilities for data-gathering among contractors, the ISA, and other stakeholders during exploration, possible test mining, and exploitation phases; and define the processes through which this data will be synthesized and used to update management measures. Defining those processes might require a dedicated role for staff of the ISA Secretariat or a specialized REMP committee appointed by the ISA for each region.
The December workshop yielded progress on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge REMP, but that plan is far from complete. Further, the ISA needs to establish a clear and thorough process for developing comprehensive, scientifically sound REMPs—which must be a prerequisite to any mining in the international seabed. Creating a standardized process is the key first step toward ensuring that REMPs become the effective tools needed to protect biodiversity in the mid-Atlantic and other regions of the deep ocean—life that is vital to the health and balance of the marine environment.
Megan Jungwiwattanaporn works on environmental policy for The Pew Charitable Trusts.
This piece was originally published in the Deep-sea Mining Observer on April 15, 2021.