Green Turtle or Chelonia Mydas

Moratoriums Aim to Prevent Deep Sea Mining from Causing Widespread Harm

The Pacific

International regulators and a handful of Pacific Island nations may soon open the floodgates for a new extractive industry to harvest resources from the ocean floor. However, major environmental concerns have led multiple countries and sub-national governments to issue moratoriums or bans on deep sea mining (DSM).

Demand for critical minerals continues to grow as global industries increasingly depend on modern electronics and the transition towards electric transportation systems accelerates. Metals like cobalt, manganese, and nickel are vital components in many standard electric vehicle batteries as well as in renewable energy systems like solar or wind power. This has led some scientists and policy advocates to call for green technology regulations that emphasize recycling materials while reducing reliance on dwindling raw minerals. At the same time, others have articulated the need to find additional sources of mineral extraction which has led to the creation of the exploratory DSM industry.

DSM advocates cite multiple reasons for why this form of extraction is necessary. Chiefly, they reference the amount of minerals needed to transition away from fossil fuels and the diminishing supplies available on land. Further, these groups point to the many human rights concerns associated with conventional mining on land and the potential for DSM to spur economic development in small island states. A few Pacific Island states like Nauru and the Cook Islands support DSM and have formed partnerships with international mining companies by giving them permission to conduct exploratory research and small-scale harvesting in the waters of their exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Local officials who back these initiatives aim to address a lack of local jobs and the need to diversify their tourism-dependent economies. These pressures are exacerbated in the face of global disruptions caused by events like the Covid-19 pandemic or climate change-induced disasters.

Notably, some researchers dispute the claim that DSM by large corporations in the EEZs of island nations would create jobs or improve quality of life for local populations. In fact, DSM could lead to significant economic harm in the event these processes damage ecosystems that are vital for subsistence or industrial fishing. Additionally, the introduction of DSM would not necessarily lead to a reduction in land-based mining, and therefore this new industry would not be helpful in ending inequities associated with conventional mining.

Moreover, the environmental consequences of DSM could be disastrous for local, regional, and global marine ecosystems. Microbial ecological communities and other vital seafloor organisms such as those depending on hydrothermal vents may face serious harm due to the removal of mineral nodules and the suffocating uplift of sediment. This damage would likely be felt throughout the water column, impacting fisheries that are vital for human survival across the Pacific. DSM’s potential to worsen climate change comes from the risk of disturbing sediment that holds sequestered carbon, a vital resource for containing greenhouse gases.

In light of these concerns, 17 countries have issued bans or moratoriums on DSM, including the Pacific Island nations of Palau, Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu, and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Some countries such as FSM have listed conditions that would need to be fulfilled before DSM could be approved. These include stipulations such as, a reduction of demand for raw minerals, a transition to a circular economy, responsible terrestrial mining practices, stakeholder decision-making, and ongoing consultation with Indigenous groups. Other nations like Aotearoa (New Zealand) have supported conditional international moratoriums without passing bans in their own EEZ’s. Sub-national actors like Guam, Australia’s Northern Territory, and the US states of Washington, Oregon, and California have taken initiative to place moratoriums on DSM in coastal waters under their jurisdiction.

While bans in EEZ’s can be impactful in reducing damage caused by DSM, many governments, non-governmental organizations, and diverse coalitions are calling on the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to issue a moratorium against DSM on the High Seas. Ongoing negotiations among ISA member states resumed in July and will potentially result in setting international regulations or a temporary moratorium. Leaders including the Prime Minister of Fiji are calling for an international moratorium on DSM until more thorough research can be conducted. Some groups are calling for outright bans such as Deep Sea Conservation Coalition and Pacific Blue Line, which was formed by representatives across multiple Pacific Island legislatures. Even major corporate entities such as Google and Volkswagen Group have expressed their support for moratoriums and stated that they will not source materials from DSM extraction.

The future of DSM, similar to its potential consequences and benefits, remains in murky waters. This industry demonstrates a unique example where regulators are attempting to prevent harm before it happens rather than reigning in processes that are already well underway. As nations and international bodies consider how to contend with the prospect of DSM, it is necessary to underscore the importance of self-determination of marginalized communities, such as Indigenous Pacific Islanders who have already faced immense harm from climate change. The transition to a green economy will certainly require critical minerals. However, solutions such as creating circular supply chains and ethical land-based resource extraction processes may be more sustainable and equitable than deep sea mining.

Kieren Rudge is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. They are a Ph.D. student in Environmental Science, Policy, & Management at University of California, Berkeley.