Flourishing Oceans05 May 2023

What is Deep-Sea Mining and Why We Need to Stop and Re-Think

The deep sea is one of our planet’s most complex and awe-inspiring ecosystems. Every day we learn something new and discover strange yet captivating sea creatures that challenge our very idea of what it is to live on this Earth

Bathyteuthis Berryi brooding eggs in the deep ocean
Bathyteuthis Berryi brooding eggs in the deep ocean. Photo Credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Our oceans are vast and largely unexplored, covering more than 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface. With so much mass to cover, it’s no surprise we are only scratching the surface of truly understanding the ocean’s role in our planetary systems.

While we are still discovering our deep ocean, companies have been pushing to mine the deep sea for “critical” minerals and metals – which are in high demand as targets to transition to renewable energy and storage like batteries, solar panels and wind turbines.

What is deep-sea mining?

Deep-sea mining is the extraction of minerals and resources from the ocean floor at great depths several thousand metres below sea level. Most of the deep sea is outside of countries jurisdiction, meaning that it belongs to all humankind.

The minerals and resources targeted for extraction are sourced from ancient structures formed over tens of millions of years, such as polymetallic nodules, hydrothermal vents, and cobalt-rich crusts.

Large machines are used to excavate the ocean floor in a way that strips out nodules and everything in between. The materials are pumped up to the ship on the surface, while wet waste and debris are dumped into the ocean, forming large sediment clouds underwater.

Should we mine the deep sea?

In short, the deep sea should not be mined until we understand the impact mining will have.

We need to know the environmental impacts of deep-sea mining before we lose this last precious habitat. The ocean floor is a fragile ecosystem, home to many unique and poorly understood species that could challenge our current understanding of the world. The disturbance caused by deep-sea mining is likely to significantly impact these and other marine ecosystems.

Deep-sea mining will occur in areas that belong to all of us but will only benefit a few. There are also concerns about the potential for deep-sea mining to amplify existing social and economic inequalities, with local communities and indigenous peoples not benefiting at all from this industry.

Who sets the rules on the deep sea?

The deep sea, like the rest of the international ocean, is considered a common heritage of mankind and is governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This means that no one country or individual can claim ownership of the deep sea.

“The idea that we should be considering the destruction of these places and the multitude of species they support – before we have even understood them and the role they play in the health of our planet – is beyond reason,”

– Sir David Attenborough.
Source: An assessment of the risks and impacts of seabed mining on marine ecosystems

UNCLOS established the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which is responsible for protecting the deep sea and regulating deep-sea mining activities in areas beyond country borders.

Private companies are very eager to start mining the deep sea. A legal loophole, which Nauru triggered in July 2021, may allow them to do this without having evidence that deep-sea mining won’t cause significant damage to biodiversity and our ocean ecosystem.

The loophole gave the ISA 24 months to agree upon and introduce regulations for deep-sea mining, or they will have to “provisionally” approve mining applications until rules can be put in place.

On the 9th of July 2023, the International Seabed Authority will run out of time to set proper guidelines for responsible deep-sea mining operations. Once mining starts, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to stop.

We’re calling on a moratorium to pause deep-sea mining until we have enough evidence about the potential damage it may cause to biodiversity and ocean ecosystems.

Next blog: Do we need to strip-mine the deep seabed to power the green economy?

Minderoo Foundation
by Minderoo Foundation

Established by Andrew and Nicola Forrest in 2001, we are a modern philanthropic organisation seeking to break down barriers, innovate and drive positive, lasting change. Minderoo Foundation is proudly Australian, with key initiatives spanning from ocean research and ending slavery, to collaboration in cancer and community projects.

3 minute read
Share this article
Other Stories