Deep Ocean Mining against Common Heritage of Mankind

Submitted by Aroosa on 15. January 2023 - 17:49

The competition between growing economic needs of mankind is winning against the natural world; the fact humans are unable to understand is that it would be integrated fall. The demise of nature would be the end of all developments. Humans after devouring the terrestrial resources, are now ready to exploit ocean minerals at an absolutely irrational rate. Since the beginning of recorded history, humans are using the blessings of the ocean, such as seafood and transportation. The existence of mineral deposits; including ores, zinc, iron, silver, gold, in the deepest parts of the ocean has been known since the 1860s. According to an estimate, about 95.8% of the deep ocean is still a mystery to humans. However, with the growing financial needs and technological advancement, the use of the ocean has expanded from the use of marine resources to marine weapons transportation. The demand and scale of consumption of metals used to make technologies such as smartphones, solar panels and electric batteries are speeding up the mining process.  

Deep ocean mining refers to the process of extracting minerals from 200 meters below the ocean. Indeed, it has open doors to scarce minerals and also to the new information about the minerals, energy and marine diversity of the underwater. Where deep ocean mining has been praised for its rapid exploration of ocean resources, it has also criticized for its operations as the damage it may cause would take millions of years to repair. The process of mining metals from ocean floor involves the removal of large amount of sediment through machinery. Due to removal of sediments, harmful substances like sediment plumes release in the ocean that is unsettling marine life including the biological productivity of the ocean plants. Experts say that the removal of these sediments would take thousands of years to gather. The noise and light from mining machines are also harmful to species such as tuna, whales, turtles and sharks. Mineral mining can also alter the habitats besides causing the loss of biodiversity in the ocean. Since ocean ecosystem is already defenseless against pollution and the effects of climate change, even small-scale mining activities can damage the marine ecosystem. The overall impacts of deep ocean mining are contrary to biodiversity conservation and sustainability goals, as the activity poses serious environmental risks.

Serious concern to the topic of deep-sea mining has prompted different leaders, organizations and international community to protect the deep-sea resources from over exploitation. In this regard, the first effort was made by Arvid Pardo of Malta to call the international community to recognize ocean resources as the common heritage of humans and to develop jurisdictions over the use of ocean. His idea was practiced by UN through the establishment of ocean governance regime (1967-1982), that adopted a resolution to recognize deep-sea resources as the common heritage of mankind. It also agreed to formulate a regulatory body to introduce international regulatory laws that would prevent technologically advanced countries to colonize the seabed and from establishing a monopoly on the exploitation of its resources. Unfortunately, the interest dimmed in 1970s and it took more than twenty years to create the envisioned autonomous body, (ISA) International Seabed Authority to fulfil the objectives of resolution adopted in 1982.

The ISA is one of three international institutions established under the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea; the other two are the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. The main function of the ISA is to regulate deep sea exploration and mining of minerals found in the waters. Despite more than a decade of discussion, the Authority has not yet drawn up guidelines to regulate deep-sea mining. Today, due to the resurgence of industrialization, globalization, technology, booming population and financial interests in commercial exploitation of marine minerals, it has become more difficult to limit humans from exploiting sea deposits. Moreover, the disagreement and delayed negotiations are taking longer to finalize the regulations as well. The biodiversity and ecology of the deep sea are still poorly understood, that is also making it difficult to assess their environmental impact and formulate adequate guidelines. Despite all pressure, the stakes are higher for advancing a mining code. The ISA summit was met in summer 2021 and had set the two-year deadline, which is about to end on July 2023.

Many scientists and environmentalists have called for a ban on deep sea mining, saying it would cause long-term damage to known and undiscovered habitats. In the words of scientist Matthias Haeckel “the impact will be greater than the impact of what we are now doing with the rainforest". The World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) joined by companies including carmaker BMW and Alphabet Inc's have called for putting an immediate halt on sea mining. 

There is need to speed up the process of developing an agreement on deep ocean mining code, otherwise financial interests may win and seabed exploitation start without any legal restrictions. The financial interests of deep-sea mining are equally strong, but without regulations, blind mining would destroy the ecosystem. Permission to operate should not be granted until risk is fully evaluated. The risks of mining activity to deep sea biodiversity, ecosystems and human well-being should be understood first. Meanwhile, deep ocean mining activities should not be considered a silver bullet to meet the growing financial needs until the environmental and socioeconomic impacts are fully examined. Ocean studies need to be prioritized for conservation, sustainable ocean planning and development. Precautionary principles should be applied for mining in deep areas.