Rules for Mining Beneath High Seas Must Protect Marine Life

Experts weigh in on International Seabed Authority draft policies

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Rules for Mining Beneath High Seas Must Protect Marine Life

This white paper was updated on Aug. 26, 2019, to reflect Dr. Aline Jaeckel’s change of affiliation to University of New South Wales.

Mining the deep ocean floor hundreds of miles from land was once considered too costly, dangerous, and complicated to attempt. Now, however, technological advances have muted those concerns, and governments and corporations are preparing to launch operations to extract minerals from beneath the high seas.

To help govern that activity, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) is writing the rules that will regulate mining the ocean floor beyond national jurisdictions and in March issued its latest draft of those regulations. Among the greater challenges the ISA faces in crafting the rules is striking a sustainable balance between industrial activity and conservation.

To help ensure that occurs, The Pew Charitable Trusts’ seabed mining project has organized a team of 15 scientists and legal scholars from 10 nations—called the Code Project—to analyse and respond to each round of ISA draft regulations. The Code Project released its latest white paper on the proposed rules on 1 June in preparation for the official ISA deliberations in July.

The paper is in two parts: Part One briefly describes and analyses six key issues raised by the ISA in its Draft Exploitation Regulations of 25 March; Part Two is a more detailed and annotated commentary on the new language in that draft.

Both parts are designed to inform discussion among ISA member States, contractors, and observers at the body’s July meeting. Pew is hopeful that, based on those discussions, the ISA will write environmentally precautionary final rules that include the establishment of large, ecologically significant no-mining areas.

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Seabed Mining Regulations

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The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) established the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and invested it with the sole power to govern seabed mining in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Mining on the international ocean floor cannot take place until the ISA approves exploitation regulations, and drafts of those regulations are now under consideration. Final approval is expected in 2020 or 2021. For perhaps the first time in history, a governing body and its member governments have the chance to establish rules for an extractive industry before it begins.