Highlighting critical gaps in decision making on deep-seabed mining

By Elisa Morgera


On 5th May 2022, the One Ocean Hub was invited by the World Economic Forum to contribute to a webinar on “Decision-Making on Deep-Sea Mineral Stewardship: A Supply Chain Perspective.” The webinar served to discuss a white paper commissioned by the Forum on the potential exploitation of deep-sea minerals from the perspective of the responsible sourcing of materials and downstream manufacturers and markets that source minerals that could power the low-carbon transition. The paper identified significant gaps in knowledge, stakeholder participation and consensus, which together impede sound decision-making on deep-sea mineral stewardship.

Hub Director Elisa Morgera, presenting findings also from Hub early-career researchers Kirsty McQuaid and Holly Niner (Plymouth University, UK) and Graham Hamley (Strathclyde University, UK), underscored that:

  • The International Seabed Authority (ISA) has a mandate to protect the marine environment and ensure benefits to humankind, which should also be understood with reference to the deep-sea ecosystems services that are experienced globally (such as climate regulation, food provision, bio-medical and other innovation, knowledge production to inform conservation and sustainable use, as well as cultural and spiritual services);
  • critical knowledge gaps concern: therelationships controlling deep-sea ecosystem functions; the thresholds for impact from deep-seabed mining (insufficient data); the ecological connectivity and effects are experienced very far from the deep-seabed (with effects not likely to be evenly experienced); the interactions between SDGs and blue economy policies; and how distant the majority of those likely to be affected by any damage to ecosystem services are from decision-making and from oversight of the industry;
  • risks for states include: non-compliance with international obligations on the protection of the environment from various sources (ocean, climate change, biodiversity) and with international human rights obligations (procedural, as well as substantive (particularly human right to health) beyond mining site (interruption or impairment of ecosystem services  such as disruption of fish stocks and interruption of fisheries, and bioaccumulation of metal residues in marine species that may be passed up to the human food chain; and regulating services, by disturbing carbon sequestered in seabed sediment);
  • Hindrance to advancing ocean science and knowledge production, undermining effective conservation, thresholds for sustainable use in other sectors; and bio-discovery (global health, renewables, conservation); and
  • Risks for companies: difficult to establish minimum due diligence as best practice from other industry sectors (under which biodiversity decline has continued) is difficult to relate to the knowledge gaps and unique challenges of deep-seabed mining; the lack of inclusion of marine and social sciences in expert judgment and baseline data (and limited consistency of available data that prevents comparison and regional environmental management); and inappropriate inclusion of remediation and biodiversity offsetting in the deep-sea mining context.

The meeting was held under Chatham House Rules. The Hub presentation built on the previous submissions to the International Seabed Authority (see here), as well as a prior presentation on this topic available here.

Hub researchers are working on two papers, that will be shared online, in June 2022, on:

  • “Transparency at the International Seabed Authority – matter of international human rights obligations, not just good practice?”
  • “The Implications of Deep Seabed Mining for the Human Right to Health.”