ISA – International Seabed Authority

The ISA, or the International Seabed Authority, is an independent international organization created under UNCLOS (see definition). They oversee the organization and control of activities in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ – see definition). They have granted 28 contracts for mineral exploration in the deep-sea, 18 of which have been granted in the last 4 years. These contracts encompass approximately 1 million km2 in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ). The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is operating with the dual mandate of promoting the development of the deep-sea bed whilst ensuring that this development is not harmful to the environment. This challenging and conflicting dual mandate will require improved oversight by the international community to make sure that the broader interests and welfare of the oceans are adequately addressed.”

Hydrothermal vents

Hydrothermal vents are formed on oceanic spreading ridges (where two tectonic plates move away from each other) or subduction zones (where two tectonic plates collide). They are formed when seawater infiltrates down through cracks in the ocean crusts. The near freezing sea water is heated by hot magma and resurfaces to form vents. The vents emit jets of particle laden fluid, which solidify as they cool, forming chimney-like structures. There are two different types of vents: black smokers and white smokers. Black smokers are chimneys formed from deposits of iron sulfide, which is black. White smokers are chimneys formed from deposits of barium, calcium and silicon, which are white. The vents are surrounded by unique communities of organisms with specific adaptations, depending on the vents to convert minerals and other chemicals into energy in a process called chemosynthesis. Hydrothermal vents are of specific interest for deep-sea mining industries. The chimneys are an accumulation of valuable minerals like zinc, nickel and copper (see definition for key DSM metals). Mining the vents wipes out the entire living community, and it is unclear if these vents can recover. Like most benthic communities (see definition for benthic flora and fauna), scientists know very little about hydrothermal vents, so the extent of the destruction is not entirely known. Furthermore, the vents contain toxic chemicals like lead and arsenic that could spill in the mining process, potentially causing extensive harm to the surrounding ecosystems.

Ferromanganese Crusts

Cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts occur at shallower depths of <400 to about > 5000 meters in areas of significant volcanic activity. In many cases, the deposits occur within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the countries. Similar in general composition to the polymetallic nodules, cobalt crusts are attracting investment in exploration for higher cobalt percentage (up to 2%), platinum (0.0001%) and Rare Earth Elements (REE) besides Nickel and Manganese. The commercial interest in the cobalt crust is recent. The International Seabed Authority (ISA – see definition) has signed exploration contracts for cobalt-rich crusts with Japan, China and Russia.”

EEZ – Exclusive Economic Zone

The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) was created by UNCLOS (see definition for UNCLOS), and is one of the key innovations in the law of the sea. The EEZ is an area beyond and adjacent to a coastal State’s territorial sea to a limit of 200 nautical miles from the baseline. Within this zone, the coastal State may exercise sovereign rights over exploration, exploitation, conservation, and management of natural resources and other economic activities, such as the production of wind or tidal power.” Most of the marine deposits of minerals in demand are in the high seas, outside of the EEZ, but exploration still takes place in the EEZ.

EBSA – Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Areas

The EBSAs are special areas in the ocean that serve important purposes, in one way or another, to support the healthy functioning of oceans and the many services that it provides. In 2008, the ninth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 9) adopted the following scientific criteria for identifying ecologically or biologically significant marine areas in need of protection in open-ocean waters and deep-sea habitats. 1. Uniqueness or Rarity, 2. Special importance for life history stages of species, 3. Importance for threatened, endangered or declining species and/or habitats, 4. Vulnerability, Fragility, Sensitivity, or Slow recovery, 4. Biological Productivity, 5. Biological Diversity 6. Naturalness.” EBSAs are identified by states and intergovernmental organizations, in accordance with international law, including the UNCLOS (see definition for UNCLOS).

CCZ – Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone

CCZ, or the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, is an extensive area in abyssal plains of the Pacific Ocean. The CCZ contains the largest known reserves of high-grade polymetallic nodules (see definition for polymetallic nodules), in an area estimated to be about 80 % of the size of contiguous United States.

Benthic flora and fauna

Benthic flora and fauna are the community of organisms that inhabit the benthic zone (see definition for benthic zone), and can also be referred to as benthos. The benthic zone has a unique set of characteristics including: lack of sunlight, cold temperatures, low levels of oxygen and a high level of pressure. Because of these extreme conditions, benthic flora and fauna have undergone specific adaptations that allow them to survive. For example, due to the lack of light, there is no photosynthesis and benthic flora and fauna cannot produce their own food. Instead, they rely on organic matter that drifts down from the layers above. Currently we know very little about these unique ecosystems that inhabit the benthic zone, although we do know they are highly sensitive. Recovery from mining activities is estimated to take decades or centuries, if those communities even recover at all. Deep-sea mining will directly impact benthic flora and fauna, by, for example, smothering and burying organisms where the sediment plume settles (see definition for sediment plume), and crushing or dispersing them with mining devices.

Benthic and Pelagic zones

Any body of water, a lake or ocean, can be divided into two main zones: the benthic and pelagic zone. The zones are categorized according to depth within a waterbody. The benthic zone refers to the very bottom layer of water in contact with the ocean floor, and the pelagic zone refers to the upper layers of water including the layer in contact with the atmosphere. The location of the benthic zone varies according to the depth of the water body: in deep oceans, it will be thousands of metres below the surface, but along continental shelves it will be just a few metres below. Both zones have distinct characteristics. The benthic zone is usually so deep that there is no sunlight, cold temperatures, low levels of oxygen and a characteristically high level of pressure. With these specific conditions, a unique community of organisms have evolved, called benthic flora and fauna (see definition for benthic flora and fauna). The benthic zone makes up about half of the Earth’s surface and is full of life, but it remains largely unexplored. Deep-sea mining presents a significant threat to life in the benthic zone by, for example, smothering and burying organisms where the sediment plume settles (see definition for sediment plumes), and crushing or dispersing them with mining devices. The pelagic zone has important functions such as oxygen absorption, heat absorption and food production. Most of life present in the ocean can be found in the pelagic zone. Pelagic communities are also threatened by deep-sea mining, by the formation of near-surface plumes (see definition of sediment plumes), which risk clogging the filter feeding apparatus of zooplankton (see definition of zooplankton), as well as blocking sunlight from photosynthetic organisms.

BBNJ – Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction

For the 60% of the ocean that lies in areas beyond national jurisdiction, the development of a new international agreement for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity is poised to commence under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (BBNJ – Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction) (See definition for UNCLOS).” Diplomats, lawyers, and scientists will work to define the rules for activities including: establishing protected areas and other marine spatial planning, and environmental impact assessment for activities with potentially significant impacts (like deep-sea mining).
Scheduled to begin in September 2018, the negotiation is budgeted for two years, which is a pretty short time to reach an agreement that will affect about 230 million square kilometers, or 46 percent of Earth’s surface. The BBNJ instrument could address activities affecting the living ocean in a comprehensive way, bringing greater coherence and functionality to the complicated legal landscape of instruments, frameworks, and bodies; or it could have a narrow scope and limited authority, becoming one more specialized instrument.”

APEIs – Areas of Particular Environmental Interest

The ISA (see definition for ISA) pioneered the deep-seabed’s first environmental management plan in 2012 by creating APEIs, or Areas of Particular Environmental Interest. They were created using MPAs as a blueprint (see definition of MPAs). These areas, where mining is off limits, are provisionally in place only for the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ, see definition).