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Seabed Mining: The 30 People Who Could Decide the Fate of the Deep Ocean

As the International Seabed Authority moves to permit the mining of unique deep-sea habitats, calls grow for it to disclose secretive deliberations about the environmental consequences of extracting valuable minerals from the ocean floor.

Written by Todd Woody Published on Read time Approx. 20 minutes
Seabed mining ihc nodule test vehicle
An artist’s rendering of a deep-sea vehicle designed by Dutch company IHC to harvest polymetallic nodules from the seabed.Royal IHC

KINGSTON, Jamaica – At the International Seabed Authority’s ocean-side headquarters, delegates from dozens of countries stroll through breezeways adorned with the works of Jamaican artists as the United Nations-chartered organization’s annual meeting begins its second week. No one, however, is entering a conference room where the seabed authority’s Legal and Technical Commission is in session and men in dark suits stand watch. A sign advises that the meeting is “closed.”

Behind heavy wood doors, the 30 members of the Commission are convening in secret to discuss, among other things, confidential contracts issued to corporations and state-backed companies to explore and potentially mine vast, barely explored deep-sea habitats that scientists believe play a key role in the global ecosystem. The seabed is thought to be rich in deposits of cobalt, copper, manganese, gold and rare elements essential for making smartphones, solar panels and other indispensable products of modern life.

The International Seabed Authority, or ISA, regulates the sea floor outside nations’ jurisdiction, an enormous expanse that encompasses nearly 50 percent of the Earth. The 168 member states of the ISA form an Assembly that elects 36 representatives to serve on the Council, a policymaking body that approves mining contracts. The Council in turn elects experts in mining, science and law to serve five-year terms on the Legal and Technical Commission (LTC), which reviews mining applications, drafts regulations and ensures mining companies comply with environmental rules. Its deliberations are mostly confidential, and the LTC does not disclose what mining companies from China, Japan, Russia and other countries are finding at depths that can reach 4 miles (6km) below the surface of the ocean. That information – including environmental impact assessments – is withheld even from the Council.

“You’ve got [30] people making decisions about half the planet behind closed doors,” says one representative of an environmental group with observer status at the seabed authority. Like others attending ISA’s 23rd annual session in August in this Caribbean capital, the representative did not want to be identified due to the political sensitivities surrounding efforts to write environmental regulations to govern seabed mining. It’s a sentiment I hear echoed by other environmentalists, scientists and government delegates as calls for transparency grow throughout the week.

The Council of the International Seabed Authority meeting on August 10 in Kingston, Jamaica. (Todd Woody)

It will be years before the first robotic mining machines are expected to descend to the sea floor to scoop up potato-sized polymetallic nodules and scrape hydrothermal vent fields and underwater mountains for valuable minerals. But whether deep-sea mining proves an economic boon for an increasingly technology-dependent planet, or an environmental bust with unimaginable and irreversible impacts on otherworldly ecosystems populated by unique life forms, is being determined by what happens in these halls and behind closed doors, as well as at little-noticed meetings that will be held in Berlin, London and other cities over the next two years.

A week spent at the ISA’s 23rd session, however, offers an inside look at the forces that are shaping the future of the deep sea. The race is on. As became clear in Kingston, the technology to mine the seabed is rapidly advancing.

The question is, can deep-sea science keep up and provide enough reliable environmental data so the seabed authority can effectively protect the planet’s final frontier? Or is “mining with no net loss of biodiversity in the deep sea” an “unattainable goal,” as 15 leading deep-sea scientists, legal experts and economists wrote in a letter published in the journal Nature Geoscience as delegates prepared to meet in Jamaica.

Plunging Into the Unknown

Mining minerals at extreme depths and under extreme pressure has until recently been more science fiction than scientific possibility. Even when the seabed authority was established in 1994 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, underwater mining was not considered commercially viable.

Still, the ISA in 2001 began awarding 15-year contracts to mining companies that give them the exclusive right to explore 29,000 square mile (75,000 square km) sections of the seabed for polymetallic nodules. Other contracts were issued for 3,900 square mile (10,000 square km) patches to look for polymetallic sulfides at hydrothermal vent fields, and 1,160 square mile (3,000 square km) concessions to explore cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts of underwater mountains called seamounts. To date, 28 contracts have been issued that cover more than 520,000 square miles (1.3 million square km) of the seabed in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.

The Law of the Sea, which regulates marine activities beyond national jurisdiction, declared the sea floor to be “the common heritage of mankind, the exploration and exploitation of which shall be carried out for the benefit of mankind as a whole.” It also mandated “effective protection for the marine environment from harmful effects which may arise from such activities” and the “prevention of damage to the flora and fauna of the marine environment.” (The United States did not sign the Law of the Sea treaty and thus is not a member state of the seabed authority, though it attends the organization’s meetings as an observer.)

In other words, the ISA has been given the challenging, if not contradictory, task of preserving the biodiversity of the seabed while regulating the industrialization of an extremely remote area of which little is known – neither in terms of its biodiversity, its role in the global ocean ecosystem nor its ability to withstand human-caused disturbance.

“I wouldn’t dream to say that more than 10 percent of the seabed is well charted,” Conn Nugent, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ seabed mining project in Washington, D.C., told me in May. “On the other hand, the technical capability to gather that data has increased in the past couple of years. You now have robots that can go to the bottom of the ocean 5,000m down and take 15m by 15m photographic images every second.

“We’re learning much faster than historically has been the case. But then again the ocean bottom is vast with a capital V,” added Nugent, a close observer of the seabed authority, who attended its annual meeting in Jamaica.

Take the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), an abyssal plain that stretches between Hawaii and Mexico and which has been targeted by miners for the polymetallic nodules that cover 3.5 million square miles (9 million square km) of the ocean floor at depths of between 13,000 and 21,000ft (4,000–6,500m).

Rich in manganese with concentrations of nickel, iron, cobalt and other valuable metals, the nodules formed over millions of years as, according to a prevailing theory, metallic elements in seawater slowly precipitated to the ocean floor. Growing mere millimeters every 1 million years, polymetallic nodules are most definitely not a renewable resource.

Long thought to be a muddy, largely lifeless void, the CCZ in fact “rivals most diverse ecosystems on Earth,” according to a 2010 scientific report filed with the seabed authority. Those nodules, the researchers found, are habitat for a host of deep-sea marine life, such as anemones and sponges that in turn host tube worms, corals and other bottom-dwelling critters. Just last year the discovery of a new species of ghost-white octopus – nicknamed Casper – on the seabed off Hawaii created a media sensation. Months later, researchers published a paper revealing that polymetallic nodules are octopus nurseries – the cephalopods lay their eggs on the stalks of dead sponges attached to the Easter egg-shaped rocks.

Scientists in 2016 discovered a new species of octopus that lays its eggs on the stalks of sponges attached to polymetallic nodules on the seabed. (NOAA)

The HMS Challenger dredged up polymetallic nodules during an expedition nearly 150 years ago, but it wasn’t until 1977 that scientists discovered hydrothermal vents on the Pacific seabed. Vent fields spew superheated sulfide-laded fluids that, over the eons, have laid down deposits of copper, gold, iron, silver and zinc on the sea floor. The vents spawned species and ecosystems that depend on chemical synthesis rather than photosynthesis – light – for life. In other words, creatures like giant tube worms that possess neither mouths nor digestive tracks “eat” the table of elements for dinner.

“Nearly all the animals at hot vents are not found at anywhere else,” Verena Tunnicliffe, a marine scientist and specialist in hydrothermal vents at the University of Victoria in Canada, says during a lunchtime presentation to seabed authority delegates on August 10. “We’re up to nearly 1,700 new species at hot vents, nearly 90 percent of them have not been seen anywhere else.”

“This habitat is incredibly scarce around our planet,” adds Tunnicliffe, who has been studying hydrothermal ecosystems for 35 years. “It’s a tiny amount. It totals, in our generous estimate, 50 square km. The size of this habitat all combined is about the size of the rather small Caribbean island of Saint Martin.”

Like Tunnicliffe, Lisa Levin, a deep-sea marine ecologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, is a leader of the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative, a global network of more than 500 scientists and other experts that advise policymakers on the sustainable management of the deep-sea ecosystems.

“Many, many deep sea animals are long-lived – they can live 100, 200 years. Some deep-sea corals can live 4,000 years,” Levin tells ISA delegates. “Many species grow very slowly, mature late, and this life history really limits their ability to recover from disturbance. And this means disturbance from mining will persist for centuries. Possibly indefinitely in some cases.”

In the Dark

The environmental impact of seabed mining is on the minds of national delegates as they take their seats behind a sweep of tables arrayed in concentric semi-circles before a dais presided over by the president of the ISA Council, Ariel Fernandez of Argentina. Days earlier, the Legal and Technical Commission had released draft “exploitation” regulations that, among other things, laid out the environmental rules of the road for seabed mining.

“While the development of exploitation regulations is a priority, it cannot be rushed at expense of core principles, such as the preservation and protection of the marine environment,” Gaia Puleston, Australia’s delegate, tells Fernandez on August 14. “We urge those drafting the regulations to proceed with caution, ensuring that the marine environment is protected from harmful effects from exploration and exploitation.”

It was a view expressed by nearly every national delegate that spoke during the ISA session. It’s not just lip service, according to one veteran delegate. “I think even countries that are going to mine still want environmental controls,” the delegate tells me. “That’s their social license to operate. There needs to be environmental controls for the public to buy into seabed mining. It’s not in their interest to do a bad job on that.”

Mining companies (known as “contractors”) will receive 30-year licenses to mine the deep sea. The draft regulations detail their obligation to conduct environmental assessments and minimize the impact of seabed mining. But it leaves unanswered – for now – the scientific standards that will determine whether a proposed mining operation would cause an unacceptable loss of biodiversity and harm to deep-sea ecosystems.

“We believe future mining exploitation of the seabed should be done with the highest level of sustainability, so we’re concerned about the lack of information on ocean ecosystems, which makes it difficult to make decisions,” says Eduardo Bonilla, the delegate from Chile, the world’s largest copper producer.

A deep-ocean species of sea cucumber swims over polymetallic nodules on the seabed. (Lenaick LEP)

If scientists, policymakers and advocates agree on one thing, it is that there is a fundamental paucity of data on deep-sea marine life and thus an understanding of the functioning of seabed communities and their role in the larger ocean ecosystem. Until the advent of deep-ocean remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) in the 1980s and 90s, it was simply not possible to explore the seabed in a systematic way. Even today, it’s an extremely expensive undertaking with operating costs for a research ship and ROVs running to $75,000 a day or more, according to Levin, a veteran of numerous deep-sea expeditions.

As Kristina Gjerde, a senior high seas adviser at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), tells the Council: “There is a large risk that we will not know what we have lost until it is indeed gone.”

The seabed authority bases its decisions in large part on scientific data gathered by the mining contractors themselves during surveys of marine life and seabed conditions, as well as the results of computer modeling and laboratory testing of potential mining impacts. Other data comes from independent scientists conducting deep-sea research.

For instance, the seabed authority used such data in 2012 to create Areas of Particular Environmental Interest in the CCZ that put nine 62,000 square mile (160,000 square km) blocks of the sea floor off-limits for mining. As part of the environmental management plan for the area, contractors are required to conduct environmental studies of their mining concessions and report their findings annually to the seabed authority.

Millions of polymetallic nodules rich in manganese and other valuable metals are found on the seabed of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone between Hawaii and Mexico.

But a May 2014 report that reviewed implementation of the environmental management plan found that “very few contractors have supplied good quality biological data” to the ISA. “Environmental baseline data should not generally be regarded as confidential, especially since the [seabed] is defined as being ‘the common heritage of mankind.’ This lack of transparency makes it difficult to ascertain what has been achieved to date.

“Confidentiality issues should not be used to cover for scant data collection and poor taxonomic classification,” concluded the report prepared for the seabed authority by a consultant.

Those issues continue to spark controversy. During an ISA Council session on August 11, the chair of the Legal and Technical Commission, Christian Reichert, presents the Commission’s annual report. Reichert, a genial 66-year-old marine geophysicist from Germany, notes that over the past year, mining contractors collectively spent more than 750 days at sea on 15 research cruises. “In general, the Commission was pleased with the quality of environmental studies being conducted,” he says.

However, he notes that one contractor “did not meet its reporting requirement regarding environmental data and generally failed to comply with requirements prescribed under the standard clauses of the contract.

“Two contractors appeared not to have advanced environmental objectives at all,” Reichert adds, and “one contractor had not provided data owing to confidentiality clauses of an international research program.”

He declines to identify the contractors, given the Commission’s confidentiality rules.

That doesn’t sit well with a number of delegates.

“We have seen for many years now there are some cases of noncompliance,” says the Netherlands’ representative. “How can the Council discharge its responsibilities if the Council doesn’t know who are the contractors not complying with the reporting requirements, and particularly if it’s a case of persistent noncompliance?”

Reichert responds that the Secretariat, the seabed authority’s administrative body, would be contacting the contractors about their failure to report environmental data.

Hydrothermal vents, known as black smokers, are relatively common at the Alarcon Rise hydrothermal vent field. (c) 2015 MBARI)

Kenneth Wong, Canada’s delegate to the Council, calls the failure of a contractor to file environmental data due to a confidentiality agreement with an outside party “of great concern.”

“We hope that’s not an ongoing practice that others will use as well to prevent the complete disclosure of research that they have gathered,” he says.

Interjects the United Kingdom’s delegate: “Is this going to be an ongoing problem and what action has been taken against it? It certainly would be a bad precedent to set if no action is taken against it.”

UK Seabed Resources, Global Sea Mineral Resources and other mining companies, however, have made public research conducted by leading deep-sea scientists they’ve hired, allowing data to be published in academic journals. And Chinese and Japanese contractors presented some of their environmental research findings at side events held during the ISA session.

“From our perspective, no environmental data should be confidential,” Jennifer Warren, director of regulatory affairs for UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, tells me at a lunchtime side event. “The only thing we want to be confidential is nodule content – not the little critters on them, but the percentage of minerals in the nodules we find.”

A new ISA database set to come online in 2018 will bring greater access to environmental data and improve transparency, according to Michael Lodge, the secretary-general of the seabed authority. “Once the database is up, that environmental data will be publicly available through the website,” Lodge tells the delegates.

The ISA Assembly apparently got the message. In a report issued at the close of the annual session on August 18, the Assembly called on the LTC to “to hold more open meetings in order to allow for greater transparency in its work” and emphasized “the importance of the sharing and accessing of environmental data.”

Lodge, however, doesn’t anticipate that the Commission will hold more open meetings. “I don’t really expect any change in the way the LTC operates,” he tells me. “It’s really the results of the meetings that need to be communicated. People shouldn’t confuse transparency with holding open meetings. I probably expect some improvement in the way decisions are communicated, with the reasons given for decisions and the outcomes of meetings made more transparent.”

Behind Closed Doors

Still, calls for greater transparency are likely to grow louder as the seabed authority moves closer to allowing mining to proceed.

The opaqueness of the LTC’s decision-making process is underscored at a Council session on August 10 when Reichert, on behalf of the Commission, recommends that delegates approve a new contract to allow Poland to explore 3,900 square miles (10,000 square km) of hydrothermal vent fields along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the Atlantic Ocean.

Reichert does not mention, though, that the seabed to be potentially mined falls within what the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity has identified as an “Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Area,” or EBSA. (The convention, which was established to preserve global biodiversity, describes EBSAs as “special areas in the ocean that serve important purposes, in one way or another, to support the healthy functioning of oceans.”)

Miners are targeting deep-sea mountains called seamounts for their deposits of cobalt. (NOAA)

When a representative of the World Wildlife Fund, Simon Walmsley, rises to point out that “the Polish claim falls within the already described EBSA,” Reichert does not respond, nor does any delegate ask questions. Instead, they unanimously approve the contract without comment.

The next day, though, the mood shifts. Delegates raise issues about the now-approved contract, while the IUCN’s Gjerde stresses that adjacent to the area to be explored for minerals lies the “Lost City,” a unique hydrothermal vent field of 200-ft-tall calcium carbonate chimneys that was discovered in 2000 and is now being considered by the United Nations as a possible World Heritage Site.

Reichert acknowledges – though the commission’s written recommendation to approve Poland’s contract does not – that the LTC was in fact aware of the EBSA designation when it considered the application. But he notes that EBSA’s currently do not impose a legal obligation to protect a designated area. “I have to mention this has been identified that there could be controversy, but at present there is no controversy as you’re not dealing with an official regulation as to the EBSA,” he tells the delegates.

Delegates and observers don’t appear assuaged. “The LTC must consider serious harm and adverse impacts to marine environment, which is highlighted by the lack of attention to EBSA in the latest claim,” Walmsley tells the Council.

The MIDAS Touch

The specific impact of seabed mining on deep-sea marine life, habitats and the larger ocean ecosystem remains largely unknown. However, between 2013 and 2016 a consortium of 32 European universities, research institutes and mining companies known as the MIDAS project conducted an extensive scientific investigation into the potential consequences of deep-sea mining. Among the greatest concerns: the impact of plumes of sediment dredged up from mining on species and habitat; the exposure of seabed life to toxic metals released during mining operations; and whether mining will harm or sever genetic links between different populations of deep-sea animals.

The results were not reassuring. MIDAS scientists, who spent 250 days at sea during the investigation, concluded, for instance, that it is impossible to determine an environmental standard to limit toxic exposure from seabed mining. “The complexity caused by the differential moderation of toxicity by temperature and pressure, the fact that mineral ores represent complex mixtures of metal ions in different oxidation states that will be differentially weathered, and the complexity of the biological communities concerned and their physiological states at the time of mining, means that any proposed ‘toxicity limits’ will be flawed from the outset,” the researchers wrote in a October 2016 report.

The scientists also found that too little is known about deep-sea organisms’ distribution across the sea floor “to make accurate predictions of the consequences of mining, which may continue for many decades.” That’s not likely to change any time soon. “Despite recent advances, much of the existing state-of-the-art technologies and methodologies are still at the pilot test stage and cannot be used on an industrial scale for rapid biodiversity assessment,” they wrote.

Giant tubeworms of the genus Riftia live on dark volcanic rock typical of the Alarcon Rise hydrothermal vent field. ((c) 2015 MBARI))

After conducting experiments in areas of the CCZ to be mined for polymetallic nodules, MIDAS researchers concluded mining would affect seabed food webs and biochemical processes “over long-term timescales.” The scientists noted that 26 years after a small area of the seabed was disturbed during an experiment to simulate a mining operation, they could still measure adverse impacts to the habitat and adjacent areas, such as a decrease in abundance of some species.

Even as delegates were meeting in Jamaica in August, scientists published a survey of marine life they conducted with ROVs in a 29,000 square mile (75,000 square km) mining contract area in the CCZ awarded to UK Seabed Resources. (The researchers also surveyed an area 150 miles away.)

They found 117 megafaunal species belonging to seven phyla. “This is the second-highest total species richness recorded in the CCZ region for these seven phyla,” wrote the scientists, whose research was supported in part by UK Seabed Resources. “This is remarkable given that this total is from one exploration contract area … and a single dive site east of the contract area.”

“It is expected that nodule mining will drastically alter this unique deep-sea habitat with recovery expected to be slow, and, yet, despite increases in technology and the number of expeditions to the area, very little is known about the ecology and biogeography of the fauna inhabiting the region,” they added.

Matthew Gianni is the cofounder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, which has observer status at the seabed authority. “These are ecosystems that have basically been undisturbed by human impacts forever and have evolved accordingly,” Gianni, who worked on the MIDAS project and urged the delegates at the ISA session to be more transparent in their deliberations, tells me: “I sometimes wonder, do we risk potentially opening up a whole new frontier to an extinction event on a part of the planet that has never been touched before, especially when we recognize we can have far-reaching impacts on a planetary scale?”

The Robots Are Coming

The Council has set a 2020 deadline to approve exploitation code regulations, which are part of a mining code that will govern seabed mining. That means over the next two and a half years, the seabed authority will have to grapple with thorny issues of environmental standards, enforcement and financial liability. And the ISA has barely begun to address other contentious aspects of the mining code; among them, the royalties contractors will pay the seabed authority and how that revenue will be used and shared. Until the entire mining code is approved, mining cannot proceed.

“These are really huge questions that have to be dealt with, and I don’t see how they’re going to get it done by 2020,” one national delegate tells me. “It took five years to negotiate the exploration code, and the exploration code had very minimal environmental rules as they were just exploring.”

“We don’t even have enough science to know the environment down there,” the delegate adds. “I was thinking it would take 10 years.”

But the pressure is on to complete the mining code well before then, given that some exploration contracts have begun to expire, requiring the Council to grant five-year extensions.

Singapore, China and Japan, all of which hold exploration contracts, urged the Council to move expeditiously. “The delegation supports speedy development of exploitation regulations so the Authority can transition to the exploitation of minerals,” Singapore’s delegate, Karen Tan, tells the Council in a statement echoed by other delegations. Japan’s representative cautions that the environmental regulations “should not be excessively legislated.”

Secretary-General Lodge says he thinks the 2020 deadline is feasible. “The regulations are in pretty good shape,” he says. “It’s a question of whether there’s the political will to negotiate them. There’s certainly no overriding technical impediment to concluding the regulations by then.”

The contractors, meanwhile, are moving forward to develop deep-sea mining technology, designing equipment to lower the impact of extracting minerals from the ocean floor. At a lunchtime side event on August 14, Belgium’s Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR) shows photos of the Patania, a boxy deep-sea tractor that will be part of a system to scoop polymetallic nodules from the seafloor. In May, GSR hired a ship in San Diego and sailed for five days to its concession in the CCZ. Once there, technicians lowered the 8ft by 10ft (2.5m by 3m) tractor to the seabed to test its ability to move across the ocean floor and to collect data on the disturbance it causes. In 2019, the company intends to test on the seabed a larger prototype vehicle that will include a nodule collector, according to Kris Van Nijen, GSR’s general manager.

The Patania, a seabed tractor that deep-sea mining company GSR is testing as part of a system that would harvest polymetallic nodules. (GSR)

He says the company plans to begin commercial mining operations in 2027 – provided regulations are in place within the next couple of years. “The move from component test to feasibility stage is very, very, very expensive,” Van Nijen says. “We’re talking about more than hundreds of millions of dollars. If we do not know how we are going to be regulated in the future, we cannot invest that kind of money.”

At another side event, the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA) also shows delegates slides shows of the nodule-mining equipment it’s developing, which it will test over the next five years. Unlike GSR, government-backed COMRA does not have to worry about raising funds from private investors.

“The initial mining tests will take place in the South China Sea at a depth of 1,000m,” Liu Feng, COMRA’s secretary-general, tells me. “We’ve found nodules in the South China Sea. The metal content is not high, but it’s a good place for testing. Then we will move to Clarion-Clipperton Zone.”

Says Lodge: “I would hope that the seabed authority can provide the operating environment for contractors within the next two years and then commercial decisions can be made.”

“We have to act in a rational way in regard to the impact on the marine environment,” he adds. “People will overplay or underplay the risk. We’re collecting a tremendous amount of environmental data from the contactors and that will all be online and publicly available and people can draw their own conclusions.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Legal and Technical Commission has 24 members. In fact, it has 30 members. 

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