Scientists decry lack of transparency at deep-sea mining negotiations

Delegates to the International Seabed Authority, the UN-mandated body responsible for overseeing the development of deep-sea mining in international waters and protecting the ocean, are currently meeting in Kingston, Jamaica.

Deep sea jellyfish at the Kaiyukan Aquarium in Osaka, Japan. Image: Daniel Tang, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Delegates of the International Seabed Authority are currently meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, to negotiate a set of rules that would pave the way for a controversial activity: mining the seabed for coveted minerals like manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and zinc.

But scientists and conservationists say there are considerable transparency issues at the meetings that are restricting access to key information and hampering interactions between member states and civil society.

The ISA is the UN-mandated body responsible for overseeing the development of deep-sea mining in international waters, but also tasked with protecting the marine environment. Very little is actually known about the deep ocean, yet countries and corporations have set their sights on exploiting three deep-sea environments — abyssal plains, seamounts, and hydrothermal vents.

They argue that doing so is necessary to produce batteries for electric cars and other green technologies, which would, in turn, help combat climate change. Yet scientists and conservationists say that mining the seabed would cause the planet far more harm than good, disrupting and destroying the very ecosystems that support life on Earth, and that green technologies do not require minerals from the ocean.

The ISA usually holds its meetings at the Jamaica Conference Centre, a complex with five large conference rooms, each of which can hold hundreds of people. But this year, due to renovations at the usual venue, the meetings were moved to a local hotel that’s unable to accommodate all delegates and observers in the same room, and has generally limited the number of attendees.

The ISA should adequately represent the interests of humankind and be a transparent, accountable body committed to defending the species, biodiversity and ecological integrity of the global deep-sea commons.

Matt Gianni, policy adviser, Deep Sea Conservation Coalition

For instance, the ISA only permits one observer per civil society group in the building at a time, which was the same restriction enforced at the ISA meetings that took place during the Covid-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, there were no restrictions on observers.

“We’re seeing huge restrictions on access,” Diva Amon, a marine biologist and deep-sea expert who is attending the ISA meetings as a representative of the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI), told Mongabay. “We are literally in this basement room, where we have a screen in front of us — a TV screen — and we’re only able to see the person who’s speaking. Usually we’re all in a room together, and as observers, we can read the room, we can interact with delegates really easily, and it’s just a lot more interactive. This time, it feels very siloed, which is unfortunate.”

Arlo Hemphill, a senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace who is also attending the current meetings, said that the new venue was unacceptable due to the limitations it created.

“They’re basically negotiating rules that are going to govern the surface area of almost half the planet and the people with the most at stake are being denied a seat at the table,” Hemphill told Mongabay.

“We were planning on bringing a very large delegation of Pacific community members,” he added. “We thought it was important to have those voices in the room, and we had planned to have a delegation of maybe 12 people from 12 different countries so that we can share time giving interventions, but also that they’d be in the room and be able to be seen by their home countries and be influencing those delegates with their presence. [But] we had to throw those plans completely out because only one person from Greenpeace is even allowed in the building.”

Another issue arose on July 18 when UN Web TV, the channel that allows NGOs, media, government officials and other individuals to follow the negotiations remotely, was switched off.

“It was at the moment when they were actually going to start the process of negotiating regulation,” Hemphill said. “Right when they were just getting to the meat, that’s when the web TV went off.”

Amon said the absence of the live stream would have compromised the ability of many stakeholders to participate fully in these negotiations, but that it was turned back on after a fierce debate among countries.

Some members of the press even had their accreditation rejected by the ISA, which has reduced media presence at the meetings. For instance, Andrew Thaler, editor-in-chief of the DSM Observer, an online trade journal supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, said he was denied access to these meetings, despite having his credentials approved for three previous meetings.

“The ISA Secretariat determined that the DSM Observer was not a bona fide media outlet under their newly implemented media standards,” Thaler told Mongabay in an email.

Mongabay has confirmed that at least one other journalist was denied access.

Critics of deep-sea mining say the transparency issues at this month’s meetings are part of a larger problem within the ISA. For instance, they’ve previously criticised the ISA for allowing the Legal and Technical Commission (LTC) — a branch of the ISA responsible for approving mining contracts — to hold all meetings behind closed doors. Member states have also routinely expressed frustration that the ISA doesn’t always incorporate their interventions into draft documents, and that there are no public recordings of the negotiations, Thaler said.

“These are some of the most consequential negotiations, not just for the future of ocean mining, but for the future of resource exploitation beyond national borders, and they are being conducted under a fog of bureaucracy which makes it extremely difficult for stakeholders to know exactly how their resources are being allocated for, as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea mandates, the good of Mankind,” Thaler said.

While deep-sea mining has yet to begin, the ISA has granted dozens of licenses to countries wishing to explore the seabed in international waters for their wealth of minerals. In July 2021, the small Pacific island nation of Nauru also triggered a two-year rule found in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that places pressure on the ISA to grant an exploitation license with whatever regulations are in place. Since then, the ISA has been working to finalise a set of regulations that would essentially allow deep-sea mining to commence in July 2023.

Nauru currently sponsors NORI, a subsidiary of Canadian mining group The Metals Company, which plans to begin mining in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a stretch of ocean between Hawai‘i and Mexico.

A spokesperson for the ISA Secretariat told Mongabay the organisation follows “the most rigorous standards of international good governance,” and that it’s committed to being “fully transparent.” It noted that ongoing renovations at the Jamaica Conference Centre are the reason this session is being held at a smaller venue, but that all attendees have “full access to the discussions.”

“All plenaries are being streamed on the ISA web TV and, as decided by the Council on July 18th, informal working group discussions are being streamed too,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson also noted that the ISA was “able to grant access to all qualified media requests” based on criteria described on its website. According to this information, the ISA will only grant accreditation to press from “bona fide” media organisations, and its communications unit “reserves the right to deny or withdraw accreditation of journalists from media organisations whose activities run counter to the principles of the mandate of ISA.”

Despite the access issues, civil society has been closely tracking the development of the current meetings. At previous ISA meetings, objections to deep-sea mining were somewhat subdued, but now voices of concern are growing louder as many countries question the safety of mining and the rush the approve the regulations.

For instance, representatives from Chile and Costa Rica both stated that they have serious concerns about the haste to finalise the mining code within a year, and Spain’s representative said that there shouldn’t be a “move to the exploitation phase if the environmental measures are not adequate.” France’s representative also urged caution, saying that we need to “heed the alarm bells that were launched in Lisbon.”

The Federated States of Micronesia became the first country to officially call for a moratorium at the ISA meetings, noting that what happens in proposed mining areas in international waters “could very well impact coastal waters and territories.” Earlier this month, Micronesia joined Palau, Fiji and Samoa in an alliance of nations that support a moratorium.

“The ISA should adequately represent the interests of humankind and be a transparent, accountable body committed to defending the species, biodiversity and ecological integrity of the global deep-sea commons,” said Matt Gianni, a political and policy adviser for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) who is attending the negotiations as a representative of EarthWorks, an NGO working to protect communities and the environment from the negative impacts of extraction.

“As it stands, the ISA continues down the path of an irresponsible effort to adopt regulations to allow mining to begin as early as the second half of 2023. But now we are finally seeing a number of countries involved in the ISA negotiations beginning to push back against this rush to open up a whole new frontier of industrial resource extraction in the deep sea, recognizing that this is an environment that we all rely on to keep our planet functioning.”

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