As some countries and companies continue to argue that the seafloor in international waters be opened to mining, there’s a clear need for consistent controls, including conservation measures, to ensure that activity does not go forward without safeguarding the marine environment. Such controls should be at the core of regional environmental management plans (REMPs). Done right, these plans, which must be adopted by the International Seabed Authority (ISA)—the organization that governs seabed mining activity in areas beyond national jurisdiction—will help to ensure that effective environmental protections are in place if commercial mining occurs.
Every region where exploration for minerals is underway or planned should be subject to a REMP, and each plan should include goals and measures to safeguard regional marine life and ecosystems from mining impacts, while balancing resource extraction with other maritime activities. Despite progress developing plans for certain regions, the ISA has not yet approved a standard process for their creation, leaving uncertainty over the roles that countries, scientists, and the ISA should play in REMP development.
At a minimum, the ISA should adopt a rule requiring that a REMP is in place before issuing a permit for mining in a given region. An even better system would be to adopt and continually update a REMP when proponents first begin searching for minerals in a region, far in advance of any proposals for full-scale mining.
The ISA has issued contracts to explore the seabed for minerals and test equipment and techniques in four ocean regions, so right now at least four REMPs should be in place. But without a standardized process that includes public consultation and robust criteria to guide REMP creation, there’s a high likelihood that mining would be managed inconsistently across regions. Further, without well-constructed REMPs in place, governments, industry, conservationists, and ISA decision-makers may lack confidence in whether mining proposals incorporate necessary regional ocean protections.
For those reasons, every REMP should include a standardized set of elements such as: descriptions of technical and scientific information relevant to the region; the intensity and location of other maritime activity and stressors; scenarios forecasting the effects of various mining activities; and region-specific indicators of environmental health. And REMPS should designate areas where mining and its impacts are prohibited to protect ecosystems—both those that are representative of the region’s biodiversity and those that are vulnerable. Finally, REMPs should also provide mechanisms for sharing data among countries and mining contractors, avoiding conflicts with other industries, and monitoring impacts from seabed mining projects at the region scale.
REMPs could also incorporate measures to protect wildlife during the times of year when encounters are more likely—for example, by stopping mining when a species is migrating through an ocean region—and to safeguard marine life that might be particularly sensitive to noise, light, sediment, or toxic contaminants. REMPs should be subject to frequent review and revision to reflect the best available science.
While the process and criteria for creating REMPs must be consistent, the precise content of the plans might vary from region to region. For example, in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a 10,000-mile underwater mountain chain running north-south from the Arctic Ocean to near the Southern Ocean, mining entities are exploring hydrothermal vent systems for minerals and metals. Fueled by underwater volcanic activity or seafloor spreading, active hydrothermal vents spew superheated, mineral-rich water from beneath the ocean floor. When the water cools, it forms towers containing copper, gold, silver, and zinc—all minerals sought after by mining companies.
Hydrothermal vent ecosystems cover only 50 square kilometers (about 20 square miles) globally—less than 0.00001% of the planet—and are home to diverse life-forms that have adapted to thrive in extreme conditions, including rare and endangered species unlike those seen anywhere else on earth. Scientists have called for a ban on mining active vents, and REMPs that cover areas with live vents should reflect this scientific recommendation.
The ISA has adopted only one REMP so far—covering a broad swath of the Pacific Ocean known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ). That plan includes large protected areas but is undergoing review to determine whether these safeguards are sufficient. Also, the plan offered no region-specific measures. With 16 contractors already actively exploring—but not yet mining—in the CCZ and a new contract application pending, a review of this REMP is timely.
The CCZ plan was completed through a largely ad-hoc process. And although the ISA has called a series of workshops in the coming months to advance REMP development for other regions, including the mid-Atlantic and northwest Pacific, these too will not be subject to a guiding template.
Germany, the Netherlands, and Costa Rica submitted a joint proposal to the ISA for standardizing development of REMPs, which would close many of the gaps identified above. If managed well, the REMP process could be a historic opportunity for the ISA to bring together world-leading experts and foster government cooperation on seabed mining policy, while raising public awareness about the wealth of resources—living and non-living—in the deepest reaches of our ocean.
Andrew Friedman manages The Pew Charitable Trusts’ seabed mining project.