As crucial talks on the future of deep-sea mining enter their final days in Jamaica, the focus has moved away from what rules should look like to whether the extraction of valuable metals on the ocean floor should even take place – at least in the near future.

For the first time in its history, member states of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN-affiliated body tasked with regulating activities on the seafloor, this week are faced with a suggestion to table a moratorium on deep-sea mining amid growing opposition to the industry from countries and even industry players.

“A moratorium on deep-sea mining is now all the more crucial to allow for science to be done,” Jessica Battle, ocean expert and global lead for WWF’s No Deep Seabed Mining Initiative told Geneva Solutions.

“We’re expecting more states to come out against deep-sea mining as they choose to listen to the science and the Indigenous peoples’ voices in the room.” To date, 21 countries including Switzerland are calling for a pause.

It comes after the ISA Council, the body’s executive arm which met from 10 to 21 July, was unable to finalise the rules for any future mining activity, pushing back the timeline for another two years.

Although the watchdog has yet to issue any mining contracts, tensions surrounding this year’s meeting were heightened because it coincided with the expiration of a so-called two-year legal loophole that could allow mining to start before any rules have been even agreed.

A clause embedded in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea says the ISA must consider or provisionally approve a licence two years after the application was made. This was triggered in 2021 when the Pacific island of Nauru made a formal request for a licence. Though the door on this legal loophole remains open, the ISA said it will not be granting any permission for now.

The debate over mining in international waters has been simmering for decades. Supporters of deep-sea mining argue that extracting valuable metals from the ocean floor, such as nickel and cobalt used to make batteries, will help accelerate the transition to green technologies.

But critics, including scientists and environmental organisations, are raising the alarm, warning that any commercial activity on the deep seafloor will have devastating consequences on marine life. They argue little is known still about the deep sea and more research needs to be carried out on the impact extraction would have.

“The deep sea could hold the answers to many problems humanity faces down the line,” said Battle, who is attending the talks in Jamaica. She spoke to Geneva Solutions about what has happened so far.

Geneva Solutions: You’re in Kingston attending the ISA assembly. Can you describe the mood and setting?

Jessica Battle: The politics are intense, even a research excellence award to a young scientist was followed by political statements. On Friday (21 July), what seemed crystal clear is that there’s a growing group of states feeling very uneasy about a licence being granted before the regulations are in place, enough science has been done and they can be assured the marine environment can be effectively protected.

ISA’s council, the decision-making body on contracts, met first last week. What happened – or didn’t happen?

States have been furiously negotiating on the rules and regulations for deep sea mining at the ISA Council meeting in Jamaica as well as what to do if an application for a licence to mine is submitted in the absence of regulations in place (the “two-year rule”). It’s very clear that there’s a lot of work left on the regulations. There was basically next to zero agreement on over 100 regulations, so none were completed.

The timeline that the council adopted is just indicative and doesn’t mean they are bound by this date to finish regulations. In fact, the decision clearly states that the ISA can just adopt another roadmap if the regulations aren’t completed. The decision doesn’t indicate any sort of green light being given for deep-sea mining. Still, the two-year loophole remains open with no clear way forward – we’re still in legal uncertainty.

This week all 167 member states that make up ISA’s assembly are meeting. A “moratorium” is the word of the week – what’s being discussed?

A pause has been proposed to be discussed and we expect additional states to express concern about deep seabed mining. This will be the beginning of an important discussion, and the first time the countries of the world can gather to discuss a pause on deep-seabed mining, this time discussing not how we progress deep-sea mining regulations but whether we even should.

There might also be some discussions around reform of the ISA body itself to ensure its decision making is not biased towards industry – like it currently is. But right now, the agenda has yet to be approved, and new agenda items, including the proposed pause, are not yet even agreed to be included on the agenda.

Which countries have been most vocal both for and against? How about on the industry side, any surprising advocates in favour of a moratorium?

A growing number of states are demonstrating bold political leadership and are pushing back on this destructive industry, including Costa Rica, Switzerland, Brazil, Chile, Germany, France and Vanuatu. A handful of states such as Norway and Nauru, continue to push for deep-sea mining regulations (the Mining Code) to be adopted as soon as possible, which would open the gates for mining to begin. We’re deeply concerned over the pressure to accelerate adoption of regulations in the absence of sufficient scientific knowledge and understanding.

How come this is only the first time in ISA history that all 168 member states can formally discuss a pause on deep sea mining?

Up until this point (and remember this has been going on for 30 years but has been rushed along by Nauru triggering the two-year rule in 2021), the rules, regulations and procedures have been discussed. This time, a group of countries has tabled a discussion for the assembly around a pause on deep seabed mining, and if accepted as an agenda item it will be the start of an important discussion. This will be the first time the assembly discusses whether or not deep seabed mining should go ahead.

What about this famous two-year loophole?

The loophole does remain open. So any state has the possibility to submit an application for a licence to mine…What’s crystal clear is that a growing number of states feel very uneasy about a licence being granted before the regulations are in place, enough scientific research is done and the effective protection of the marine environment can be ensured.
ISA is both tasked with protecting the seabed but also issuing eventual licences for mining it. WWF and other NGOs have raised the issue of conflicts of interest before, yet these don’t seem to be any closer to being resolved…

The review of the ISA is on the cards for discussion this week, suggested by Germany. It suffers from a severe lack of transparency, and decision making in the council is biased towards mining, and not towards the protection of the marine environment. A reform is needed to make the ISA into a modern open international body, in line with international commitments including under the UN’s sustainable development goals.

How transparent has this year’s session been, from crystal waters clear to deep sea opaque?

Cancelling the broadcast feed and making decisions behind doors is never a good look. Also, media has not been allowed to attend, even if accredited, apart from the second week of the council.

What else should we be taking away with us from this year’s meeting?

We’ve seen a lot of different experts and states come out in support of a moratorium but also now other industries that are worried about impacts. Last week 32 per cent of the global tuna industry and a group of 36 financial institutions managing over €3.3 trillion in assets, released a statement calling on governments to refrain from deep-sea mining until its potential risks are understood. The UN commissioner on human rights has even called upon governments not to allow deep seabed mining. A moratorium is all the more crucial to stop any applications being considered before regulations are in place, enough scientific research is done and the effective protection of the marine environment can be ensured.

After this year’s session, and depending on the outcomes, what’s next?

We’ll be looking at the next round of negotiations on deep-sea mining in November and additional countries coming on board for a moratorium. Also, we will see more brands and investors calling for a moratorium and committing not to source minerals from or finance deep-sea mining.

We also need to push for more governments to ratify the High Seas Treaty at the UN General Assembly in September, so that we can provide an extra layer of protection against mining, with high seas MPAs (marine protected areas) progressing. Effective collaboration between a Conference of Parties set to be established once the treaty enters into force and the ISA will also be an important step.

Any quotable phrases overhead in the corridors?

Not really, it’s all very hush-hush – but when I was told I couldn’t hand out the leaflets to our reception event, I was surprised to see them being used as the favourite paper fan in the room by delegates to cool themselves down in the warm meeting room.

For the uninitiated, what’s the one fact about the deep sea that you tell people and that never ceases to amaze you?

That one of the enzymes in the Covid-19 tests was actually from a deep-sea sponge – so don’t underestimate the power and importance of the deep! It’s not an ecological barren. It could hold the answers to many problems humanity faces down the line.