Citing knowledge gaps, ISA delays deep-sea mining rules


Last month, the International Seabed Authority’s governing council announced that it needed more time to finalize the rules and regulations that will determine the future of deep-sea mining in international waters. Though significant questions remain, the delay likely means that no large-scale operations will be approved until a mining code is finalized, which will not be before 2025. As negotiations continue, researchers like Bigelow Laboratory’s Vice President for Research Beth Orcutt will continue to push for new science — and science-informed policy — to protect the deep-sea environment.

“There are still a lot of knowledge gaps, so this is going to be an important and interesting year to follow this work,” Orcutt said. “Looking out five to 10 years, there’s really many paths society can take on the issues of deep sea-mining and how to build a sustainable future.”

As demand grows for critical minerals that can help fuel the energy transition, the mining industry is increasingly looking to the seafloor as the next frontier. The ISA, headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica, is the intergovernmental body charged by the United Nations with regulating mining, and minimizing its impacts, in international waters.

In 2021, a process was triggered that gave the ISA two years to prepare before contractors would be allowed to submit applications for mining licenses, even in the absence of finalized regulations. That waiting period elapsed this summer, and at least one company has indicated their intention to apply as early as next year. Most ISA member states have committed, though, to not sponsor any applications for exploitation without a code in place. The rulemaking process will continue during the third meeting of the year in November and the 29th session of the ISA council next year.

During last month’s meeting, many participants cited knowledge gaps as one of the primary motivations for the delay. The recognition that there are still too many unknowns — on how these ecosystems function, how they would respond to mining, and how to possibly repair any damage — is thanks in part to Orcutt and other researchers working to ensure science is front and center in negotiations.

Orcutt participated in last month’s meeting remotely, and attended the March meeting in person, as a contributor of the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative – a network of experts providing scientific input for global negotiations. Scientists with DOSI have argued that it is impossible to effectively protect these ecosystems, or restore them after the fact, without a better understanding of their unique biology and geology.

“At least a decade of research is needed to have sufficient knowledge to inform the development of rules and regulations for environmental impact assessments, thresholds of harm, and monitoring,” Orcutt said. “That lack of scientific knowledge is one of the main concerns for not rushing the process.”

Orcutt and her partners are just as active, though, in the periods between meetings, trying to elevate science and ensure that the ISA is working with the best available data, even as limited as it is.

This summer, Orcutt wrote a letter to the editor in The Economist in response to an editorial calling for deep-sea mining, as well as a perspective piece in the journal Nature. In it she wrote of her experience at the July meeting, arguing that “the world knows too little about deep-sea ecosystems to judge what rules would ensure their protection.”

Orcutt is also associate director of the Crustal Ocean Biosphere Research Accelerator, an international collaborative seeking to facilitate research on the rocky parts of the seafloor and translate scientific discoveries into informed decision making. COBRA has organized a series of webinars discussing commercial mining impacts and recovery of deep-sea ecosystems.

The focus for COBRA and partner organizations in the coming months will be on assembling whatever information is available — and emphasizing where knowledge gaps remain — for a series of ISA-affiliated working groups. This includes several new groups coming together this fall tasked with developing environmental thresholds for harm, which are essential for protecting the deep sea and quantifying the full environmental costs of mining.

These thresholds would represent meaningful tipping points for different habitats and ecosystem services that, when exceeded, would trigger policy responses. But what those thresholds are — and how to enforce them — is anyone’s guess without more science.

“We have almost no data, so if you want to monitor that environment, you’re essentially guessing what the threshold of harm is and coming up with an arbitrary limit to monitor against,” Orcutt said. “But if you don’t have that information, you can’t estimate the full cost of a mining project, and who is going to end up holding the bag if those costs exceed profits?”

When it comes to cost, research has shown that impacts can be felt well beyond the immediate footprint of mining. At a COBRA webinar in August, for example, the team highlighted a recent study that showed an increasing overlap between Pacific tuna fisheries and one of the most promising areas for exploitation as tuna shift eastward in response to climate change. Plumes of debris and noise and light pollution from mining would also affect species throughout the water column, and studies of small-scale exploratory mining have observed that these impacts can persist for several years.

Mining also threatens the deep sea’s unique chemistry and microbiology that continues to yield new insights. Earlier his summer, in fact, Orcutt led a team with the Schmidt Ocean Institute to explore the biodiversity in deep-sea ecosystems off Costa Rica and discovered an octopus nursery on an underwater mountain — only the fourth such location known in the world.

“It’s always so inspiring for me to get to experience the amazing deep sea,” Orcutt said. “Events like the June cruise are critical for keeping me enthusiastic about it and fueling this intense engagement with policy.”

Photo: On a recent expedition to an underwater mountain off Costa Rica, Senior Research Scientist Beth Orcutt and her colleagues discovered a rare deep-sea octopus nursery, reminding researchers of the incredible scientific insight we can yield from the deep sea. Schmidt Ocean Institute