Days ahead of a deadline that highlights the pressure to develop rules on deep-sea mining, Cook Islands prime minister Mark Brown said pursuing the controversial practice is “the right thing to do for our country.”

Brown told the Guardian the small Pacific nation continues to “proceed with caution” as it studies the feasibility of harvesting seabed minerals within its waters. As the Cook Islands moves ahead, opposition to the nascent industry is widespread – including among Pacific states – with some countries calling for a moratorium or outright ban. Those against deep-sea mining are concerned about the environmental impact it could have on marine ecosystems.

“Exploring this opportunity is not only the right thing to do for our country, it is the responsible thing to do,” Brown said in an email interview, while stressing his government hasn’t made a decision on whether it will mine the sea floor.

His remarks come ahead of the 9 July deadline that compels the UN-affiliated International Seabed Authority (ISA) to complete regulations governing deep-sea mining. Those regulations are unlikely to be ready, however countries and companies will still be able to apply for permits to begin exploitation of the sea floor.

The Cook Islands is a nation of 15 small islands located between Tonga and French Polynesia, with a population of about 18,000. It estimates there is vast mineral wealth embedded in around 7bn tonnes of polymetallic nodules sitting on the seabed within in its territorial waters. Forming over millions of years, the typically black, round potato-sized nodules are rich in cobalt, copper, nickel, and manganese. Brown has previously said the Cook Islands could become a source of critical strategic metals with enough nodules to meet the world’s current demand for cobalt for 80 years.
Along with Nauru, Tonga, and Kiribati, the Cook Islands is a state sponsor of international companies preparing to apply for a permit to mine the ocean floor in sovereign and international Pacific waters.

Proponents say deep-sea mining offers states a chance to develop their economies using ocean resources while contributing to a transition away from fossil fuels. While no companies are currently mining the ocean floor, significant exploration work is under way. In 2022, the Cook Islands issued three exploration licences within its exclusive economic zone. As a result, Brown says 20,000 sq km of Cook Islands’ seafloor has been mapped and biological and geological samples collected.

The 168-member ISA is mandated to control mineral-resource related activities on the sea floor while ensuring protection of the marine environment.

The ISA has granted 30 active exploration contracts to 21 contractors including the governments of India, South Korea, Poland, and companies supported by the four Pacific sponsoring states.

Ahead of the July deadline, a spokesperson for ISA told the Guardian that exploitation applications can be received at any time and would be the start of a long and rigorous approval process.

“Decision making at ISA is based on a consensus and a work plan for exploitation would be approved only if member states … agree to it. At the moment, it is too soon to say when potential exploitation could begin.”

In a statement to the ISA in March, Margo Deiye, Nauru’s ambassador to the ISA, stated her country would not submit an application on behalf of its commercial partner in July.

The collection of nodules involves the deployment of unmanned robotic vehicles which will vacuum nodules from the seafloor to be pumped back to a ship on the surface.

Last year French president Emmanuel Macron called for a total ban on deep-sea mining, while governments in Germany, Chile, Spain, New Zealand and elsewhere support a moratorium or ban.

Fiji and Tuvalu, which had previously considered supporting deep-sea mining companies, both reversed course and joined Palau, Samoa, Vanuatua nd other Pacific nations in demanding a moratorium.

Concerns have been raised by scientists and conservation bodies like the IUCN, environmental advocacy groups and Indigenous people. Corporations including Google and Volkswagen have called for a pause, while prominent ocean experts warn of “enormous damage”.

Craig Smith, a professor emeritus of oceanography at the University of Hawaii, specialises in the biodiversity and disturbance ecology of the deep ocean, leading research expeditions in the CCZ. He told the Guardian an estimated 40-70 percent of the area’s species have not been collected.

“We’re still very early on in censusing the biodiversity of the region that is targeted for abyssal polymetallic nodule mining,” Smith said. A recent study documented over new 5,000 species in the CCZ.

He said he’s not for or against deep-sea mining but that the activity would have profound and undeniable impacts including the irreversible destruction of deep-ocean habitat, sediment plumes, and noise that can affect whales and other marine life hundreds of kilometers from a mining operation. The effects, he believes, may be more significant than people expect.

Fiji-based Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG) supports a global ban on deep-sea mining. Deputy coordinator Joey Tau has been observing ISA mining code regulatory negotiations for two years.

Speaking from Tonga on the sidelines of an ISA-hosted workshop on equity for sponsoring states, Tau told the Guardian, “We cannot be talking about benefit sharing and equity in the absence of proper environmental regulations and standards.”

With deep-sea mining dividing Pacific Island nations, Stuart Minchin, director-general of the Pacific Community (SPC), the region’s largest scientific and technical organisation, said its role is to be objective and support all 27 member nations with “the best available science on sovereign and regional issues” no matter their position.

Brown doesn’t expect to receive an application for a mineral harvesting licence for at least several years, and says his country needs more information and data before it makes a decision about whether or not to proceed.

The prime minister told the Guardian that as a small island nation vulnerable to external shocks, deep-sea mining offers the long-term prospect for development, diversification, and future prosperity.

“We are the ones in charge of our destiny, and it is Cook Islanders that will continue to make decisions about how our Cook Islands resources are developed,” he said.