Deep Sea Mining Causes Concern at UN Conference in Lisbon, Portugal

Silhouettes in front of Conference signs
Valor Econômico
Lisbon, Portugal
Deep Sea Mining Causes Concern at UN Conference in Lisbon, Portugal

The most crowded events at the United Nations Oceans Conference, which took place in Lisbon, made reference to something that has not yet happened — but has the potential to create damage to 90% of the marine biome — the mining of regions that are outside national jurisdictions, known as the high seas. 

The biggest threat in deep sea areas, which do not belong to any country, is mining on the seabed, affecting biodiversity and damaging marine life that is not even known by science yet.

On Monday, three Pacific island countries raised the flag for a moratorium on deep-sea mining: Palau, Fiji and Samoa. It would be a ten-year deadline for further studies. A Peruvian parliamentarian present in the room said he would push through a bill along these lines. A French MEP said that the European Parliament had passed three resolutions along the same lines.

Brazil is one of 20 countries with a license to research in international waters. Teams of researchers from the University of São Paulo and the University of Vale do Itajaí are studying the existence of mineral deposits.

There are different formations, depending on the geology of the sea floor and depth, among other factors. One of the study areas is about 1,500 kilometers off the coast of Rio de Janeiro and has depths ranging from 700 meters to more than 5,000 meters.

One of the formations is known as nodules and may have cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese. Another are the "crusts" and have cobalt, manganese, titanium, nickel and various elements known as "rare earths". "The demand is for batteries and electric cars," explains Matthew Gianni, one of the founders and policy advisors of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), a network formed in 2004 that brings together more than a hundred environmental, fishing, law and research organizations.

profile of a man in a suit
Matthew Gianni / Credit: Divulgação.

The Brazilian interest is also expressed by three requests made to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In one of the requests, the Brazilian government expresses the intention to increase its jurisdiction waters by 2.1 million square kilometers (area equivalent to Greenland) the size of the national territory in the Atlantic. This would expand the Blue Amazon by 58%. The Blue Amazon is the name used to refer to the Brazilian government's continued expansion eastward to assert its power over the Atlantic ocean.

"The oceans are in trouble, we are putting the oceans at risk. I am a witness to these changes," said American marine biologist and oceanographer Sylvia Earle, 87, one of the world's most famous ocean scientists, at one of the panels in Lisbon. "Here we are, for the first time, with the capacity to access the deep sea. We can explore and turn into products something that we may not need at this point in history," she followed.

"Mining has environmental costs. On land, at least, we can monitor what is happening. But thousands of metres down, who will be looking?" she questioned, reminding the audience that science does not even know what is at the bottom of the ocean.

Only 20% of the world's ocean floor has been mapped, says Admiral Rhett Hatcher of the UK Hydrographic Office.

"What could happen, from 2023, is the possibility of opening up an industrial mining front on the seabed on a much larger scale than exists on land today," said Gianni. "And with an impact also on the species that live in the water column and that we know even less about," he added.

"No one can mine without the permission of the international community," he said, clarifying that there is still no mining in the oceans, but there is pressure from some companies. Norway and Japan are countries that have shown interest in exploring for minerals in deep waters.

Brazil is one of the 167 signatories to the Convention. The United States has not signed. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is the UN system entity that releases the licenses.

"It is a controversial and not very democratic entity. It needs to be reformed," said Gianni.

In July 2023, due to a mechanism triggered in the ISA by the small Republic of Nauru, in Oceania, the possibility of commercial exploitation was opened.

In August in New York, however, countries are expected to reach an agreement on biodiversity conservation in waters beyond national jurisdictions, which could prevent mining.

This story was produced as part of the 2022 UN Ocean Conference Fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network with support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch). It was originally published in Portuguese in Valor Economico on June 29, 2022. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: The 2022 UN Ocean Conference was held in Lisbon, Portugal earlier this year / Credit: UN Regional Information Centre on Flickr.

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