Can mineral resources be extracted from the deepest areas in the ocean without causing irreversible damage to the marine environment and the vital services provided by its ecosystems?
Some would argue that this is an impossible task. Several questions immediately arise. Do we need seabed mining in the first place? What are the best environmental practices available for it? Where to start?
The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is an autonomous organization created under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Acting on behalf of humankind as a whole, the ISA is responsible for managing and regulating mining activities of mineral resources considered as the “common heritage of humankind" in “the Area"- the seafloor in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
In administering the mineral resources of the Area, ISA is also obliged to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment from the harmful effects of mining. This, however, is an intricate task. The discourse on whether or not to mine, or where and how much to mine, should involve the consideration of several elements such as information from different areas of knowledge, as well as economic and political constituents that compose, interact and, consequently, influence decision-making processes. To compound this, the deep-sea realm, its ecosystems and habitats remain largely unknown to science to this day.
Over time, it has become increasingly clear that human beings represent an intrinsic part of the natural environment, including the ocean. Consequently, international and national commitments towards a more sustainable ocean, such as the application of ecosystem-based management (EBM), have been advocated by many countries and organizations in the last decades. Indeed, the inclusion of EBM as a guiding principle in the ISAs draft of regulations for future commercial mining underscores these commitments.
However, despite underlining EBM as a guiding principle, some clarity is necessary as to what significance this entails in practice. For example, has the ISA actually operationalized the components of EBM into its regulations and recommendations? Is it possible to change EBM recognition with respect to the seabed mining regime over time? Is the approach clear enough so that it is not only recognized but also implemented by all interested parties, especially mining contractors?
Premised on the eight general categories of EBM principles (Core, Ecological, Impacts, Management, Knowledge, Participation, Socio-economic and Spatial and Temporal Scales), the latest Editor's Choice article, Recognition of Ecosystem-based Management principles in key documents of the deep seabed mining regime: implications and further recommendations analyses five key documents of the ISAs seabed mining regime. The analysis evidenced a general upward trend in the recognition of principles in the seabed mining regime through time. However, numerous shortcomings remain, especially for categories such as Management, Participation, and Spatial and Temporal Scales.
As such, there is a long way towards a sustainable mining practice. As part of its recommendations for improvements, the present study emphasizes the importance of the ISA further clarifying the meaning and logic of EBM in relation to the seabed mining regime (especially pertaining to ecosystem services), the enhancement of the ISAs subsidiary expert body (the Legal and Technical Commission), as well as the improvement of dialogue with stakeholders and the general public.
Read Recognition of Ecosystem-based Management principles in key documents of the deep seabed mining regime: implications and further recommendations, free to access in ICES Journal of Marine Science.
This image has been designed using resources from Flaticon.com.
Maila Guilhon, Francesc Montserrat, Alexander Turra