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Nauru’s intention to mine the seabed prompts alarm among conservationists

Dominica sperm whales near the surface. Photo Courtesy of The Dominica Sperm Whale Project.

  • Nauru has notified the International Seabed Authority (ISA) that its sponsored entity, Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), plans to commence deep-sea mining in two years’ time, triggering a two-year rule embedded in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
  • The ISA has yet to generate a mining code that would set out rules and regulations for deep-sea mining activities.
  • Experts are concerned that the ISA will prematurely approve Nauru’s application and that deep-sea mining will commence before we fully understand the damage it could cause to biodiversity and ecosystems.

The Pacific island nation of Nauru has stated its intention to start deep-sea mining in two years’ time, despite the fact that the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the U.N.-mandated body governing this activities, has yet to agree upon overarching rules and regulations.

In a letter dated June 25, the Nauru President Lionel Aingimea wrote to the president of the council of the 26th sessions of the ISA to say that its sponsored company, Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), “intends to apply for approval of a plan of work for exploitation” within two years. Nauru has been a member of the ISA for the past 25 years, which gives it the authority to notify the ISA of this intention.

NORI, a subsidiary of Canadian-owned The Metals Co., formerly DeepGreen Metals, already has a 15-year license to explore for minerals in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a 4.5-million-square-kilometer (1.7-million-square-mile) abyssal plain stretching between Hawai‘i and Mexico that has an abundance of polymetallic nodules — potato-sized rock accretions on the seafloor that contain commercially valuable metals like cobalt, nickel, manganese and copper.

Nauru is invoking what’s commonly referred to as a “two-year rule,” a clause in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that allows member states to notify the ISA of their intention to start deep-sea mining. This, in turn, requires the ISA to adopt rules, regulations and procedures to govern the proposed mining activity. If this is not achievable, the ISA must at least evaluate the mining proposal by the end of the two-year period.

A new species (Relicanthus sp.) from a new order of Cnidaria collected at 4,100 meters in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ) that lives on sponge stalks attached to nodules. Image by Craig Smith and Diva Amon, ABYSSLINE Project.

Andrew Friedman, the project lead for seabed mining at Pew Charitable Trusts, says the invocation of the two-year rule does not necessarily mean NORI will be approved by the end of the two years, but he still says he is “pretty concerned” about the development.

“The process is certainly weighted towards approval of that application,” Friedman told Mongabay. He added it will most likely be the ISA’s Legal and Technical Commission (LTC) — an advisory body made up of volunteers, many of whom are civil servants in their home countries — to review the application and decide if it can be approved.

“Now, we have never seen an application for exploitation,” he said. “But the LTC, to my knowledge has, or at least in the recent past, has not disapproved any applications for exploration, the preliminary phase that is supposed to lead into exploitation.”

Friedman said he is also concerned that deep-sea mining will go ahead before a proper mining code has been adopted, which would set out rules and regulations for deep-sea mining. The ISA previously set a 2020 deadline to finalize its mining code, but negotiations were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a press release, the ISA said it expected to resume its work on exploitation regulations before the end of 2021.

“We are nowhere near ready to govern seabed mining in the deep ocean,” Friedman said. “We don’t have the governance infrastructure in place at the ISA. We don’t have the capacity to properly evaluate applications.”

Experts at the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) have suggested that the triggering of the two-year rule was being used to facilitate a proposed multibillion-dollar merger between DeepGreen and the Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corp. (SOAC), which together became The Metals Co.

A still image of exploratory deep sea mining captured by an onboard video feed. Image courtesy of Nautilus Minerals.

“It is surely no coincidence that this highly damaging move has happened at this time,” Matthew Gianni, cofounder of the DSCC, said in a statement. “Nauru’s action will enable strip mining in the deep ocean to start even before environmental regulations are in place. It’s time for member governments of the ISA to stop this mad rush to mine, cancel the contracts with DeepGreen, stop the rule being triggered, reform the ISA and call a halt to this retrograde, industrial-era approach to resource extraction and destruction of our world.”

Neither the ISA nor The Metals Co. responded to Mongabay’s request for comment.

More than 450 marine science and policy experts from 44 countries have signed a statement calling for an immediate moratorium on deep-sea mining. They argue that deep-sea mining would lead to substantial losses to biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, and that there is currently not enough scientific research to fully understand the negative impacts of deep-sea mining on the marine environment.

“We simply don’t know enough about the deep ocean … to have any understanding of what mining’s likely impacts are going to be,” Friedman said. “And that includes not just on the ocean floor, but throughout the water.”

Correction 05/08/2021: This article has been revised to specify that the International Seabed Authority (ISA) is a U.N.-mandated body rather than a U.N. body, and that the merger between DeepGreen and the Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corp. (SOAC) has not yet been facilitated.

Banner image caption: Dominica sperm whales near the surface. Photo Courtesy of The Dominica Sperm Whale Project.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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