The deep sea contains some of the most understudied ecosystems on Earth, is home to species found nowhere else and plays an important role in the life systems that keep our planet healthy. Despite these widely recognized benefits, an obscure provision in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), known as the two-year trigger, could allow commercial seabed mining to begin as early as July 2023. That’s because in 2021, the Republic of Nauru announced its intent to put forward a deep-seabed mining application.
This announcement has caused the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to fast-track the development and adoption of internationally recognized regulations for exploiting the seabed. (The ISA is an autonomous body created by UNCLOS that is responsible for ensuring that deep-seabed mining activities do not adversely affect marine life.) And if the ISA is unable to complete these regulations by July 2023, it is likely the mining company sponsored by Nauru will still submit a mining application for the body’s review.
Since the invocation of the two-year trigger, the ISA has accelerated the pace of negotiations on the regulations, meeting numerous times, even during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, to meet this deadline. For the last two weeks, government representatives participated in a meeting of the ISA Council in Kingston, Jamaica, to move the regulations forward while also discussing how the ISA will consider an application in the absence of regulations, a challenge that raises significant unanswered legal questions. As such, it has become increasingly clear that notwithstanding the efforts in Kingston, the ISA will not be able to resolve the numerous regulatory issues connected to seabed mining and finalize scientifically sound, precautionary, robust, enforceable and environmentally responsible rules by the July 2023 deadline.
The discussions in Kingston led many countries to make high-profile statements concerning the future of deep-seabed mining. Germany joined Palau, Fiji, Samoa, the Federated States of Micronesia, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Chile, Spain, Ecuador and Panama in calling for a precautionary pause, precautionary delay or moratorium until more research is done; meanwhile, France called for an outright ban. Others, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Netherlands and Portugal, reiterated their position that commercial mining should not begin until regulations have been adopted. A small number of countries, including the United Kingdom and Norway, continued to argue that it is possible to adopt the Mining Code by July 2023.
For those who have followed or engaged with the ISA over the last few years, this represents a tremendous shift in countries’ positions and signifies a growing awareness that we don’t have the science or regulatory structures in place to ensure that deep-sea habitats, the life they are home to, and the planetary systems they support will be protected from the effects of seabed mining. No mining should take place until we do, however long that takes.
Julian Jackson works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ocean governance project.