We must stop deep-sea mining before it begins

Greenpeace activists from New Zealand and Mexico confront the deep sea mining vessel Hidden Gem off the coast of Manzanillo, Mexico November 16, 2022. REUTERS/Gustavo Graf

Greenpeace activists from New Zealand and Mexico confront the deep sea mining vessel Hidden Gem off the coast of Manzanillo, Mexico November 16, 2022. REUTERS/Gustavo Graf

World leaders should agree on a moratorium to protect the seabed and its fragile biodiversity from destructive deep-sea mining

Daniela Fernandez is founder and CEO of Sustainable Ocean Alliance, a youth-led conservation movement, and Matthew Gianni is co-founder and political and policy advisor with the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition

The world is just months away from a critical vote that could determine the fate of our planet for centuries to come: whether to open international waters to destructive deep-sea mining.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) met in Jamaica these past two weeks and debated if, when and how its member countries would agree to permit the practice. Discussions will continue at another meeting in July, and if the ISA votes to approve commercial mining it could immediately begin accepting applications.

Countries should look to the fossil fuel industry for a clear warning. Scientists working for oil and gas companies knew the climate cost of burning fossil fuels for over 50 years, yet industry leaders chose to confuse the public and keep them in the dark for the sake of continued profit.

We cannot afford to start a whole new extractive industry that scientists have warned will cause large-scale biodiversity loss before we even understand the consequences. Together, we call on world leaders and policymakers to unite to protect the ocean from further pillaging, exploitation, and needless destruction.

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The ISA is mandated by the United Nations to regulate all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area “for the benefit of humankind” and effective protection of the marine environment.

Permitting deep-sea mining would ravage one of the most pristine, unexplored, and fragile ecosystems in the world – leading to the potential extinction of the species that live there. Mining disturbance and wastewater could create toxic cloudy plumes that travel for hundreds of kilometers and even stretch into the shallows, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake.

When it comes to the deep sea, there are so many important unknowns about what it provides the planet. Given the very real risk of irreversible damage, we could lose undiscovered species whose genes could provide solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges.

The ramifications of deep-sea mining go far beyond the seafloor. The ocean is humanity’s biggest protection against climate change. It produces half the oxygen we breathe and absorbs one-quarter of our carbon dioxide emissions along with more than 93% of excess heat caused by global warming. By disrupting the delicate balance of ocean life and habitats, we could reduce the deep sea’s ability to serve as that critical shield and carbon sink.

The ocean also contributes $1.5 trillion to the global economy each year, according to the OECD. The damage inflicted upon future generations is incalculable, especially as the death toll from climate change keeps rising.

From a scientific, economic, and moral perspective, the many risks of diving blindly into mining far outweigh any profits that stand to be gained – for us and future generations.

In pursuit of future profits, seabed mining proponents employ rampant “bluewashing”. Supporters claim the only way to keep up with the demand for batteries, particularly for electric cars, is to mine the deep sea for minerals such as nickel, manganese, cobalt, and copper.

This assertion has been debunked by numerous studies, and car manufacturers such as BMW, Renault and Volvo support a moratorium or pause on deep-sea mining. Others including Tesla, Ford, BYD and General Motors have begun exploring and using more efficient and affordable alternatives, such as improved lithium iron phosphate batteries that don’t require metals from the deep sea.

A social and political shift is occurring. In the last year, 14 countries have formally called for a precautionary pause or moratorium – as have 704 marine science and policy experts – and France is calling for a total ban.

More than 100 non-governmental organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, and Sustainable Ocean Alliance have also come together under the umbrella of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition in support of this movement. It is time for others to step forward.

We are now in a unique and privileged position to understand the devastating risks of deep-sea mining before it begins. The world has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to break humanity’s cycle of acting first and dealing with the consequences later.

We can spare our planet and ourselves from needless damage by taking a deep breath before jumping headlong into foolhardy action. Countries should pause to ask questions first, and prioritize our planet over profits.

We must let the International Seabed Authority know that the world is watching.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • Adaptation
  • Loss and damage
  • Biodiversity

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