Seabed mining regulation ends in impasse

The UN-backed Council of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) has ruled out any immediate permission for mining the seabed to begin after a meeting in Kingston.

The ISA’s member nations agreed on a two-year roadmap for the adoption of deep sea mining regulations, despite conservationists’ calls for a moratorium on mineral extraction they say would avert marine threats.

The ISA, an intergovernmental body tasked with protecting the seabed, and its member states have spent the last decade trying to develop a code for the possible exploitation of nickel, cobalt and copper in deep seabed areas that fall outside of national jurisdictions.

However, an agreement has so far been elusive.

In the latest decision, the ISA Council, which had been negotiating in Jamaica for the past two weeks, said it “intends to continue the elaboration” of regulations “with a view to their adoption at the 30th session of the Authority” in 2025.

“This is an indicative target,” rather than a deadline, said council chairman Juan Jose Gonzalez Mijares.

Since 9 July, after the expiration of a deadline triggered by the small Pacific state of Nauru in 2021, the ISA is obligated to consider—though not necessarily grant—licenses for potentially environmentally devastating mining operations if governments request them.

That would go beyond the status quo, which has so far only seen the body grant exploration permits, as the deep sea mining sector itches to take off in earnest.

“We are no longer in a ‘what if’ scenario, but rather ‘what now’,” Nauru’s ambassador to the ISA Margo Deiye said during the session, adding that her government planned to soon apply for a mining contract.

Some NGOs and scientists say that deep sea mining could destroy habitats and species that may still be unknown but are potentially vital to ecosystems.

They also say it risks disrupting the ocean’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide emitted by human activities, and that its noise interferes with the communication of species such as whales.