Alphonse François Renard
Alphonse François Renard (1842 – 1903) was professor of geology at the University of Leuven and curator of the Royal Natural History Museum in Brussels. In 1878, Professor Renard was asked to help examine and classify the rock specimens and oceanic deposits collected by HMS Challenger, the first oceanographic vessel to circumnavigate the globe between 1872 and 1876. The expedition was the first to retrieve polymetallic nodules from great depths in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Ocean.
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
In 1945, President Truman extended US jurisdiction over certain subsoil and seabed resources past the territorial sea out to the end of the continental shelf, thereby claiming offshore oil “and other minerals”. Other countries quickly followed the example of the United States and also staked their claim well beyond the historical 3-nautical-mile limit.
In 1965, John L. Mero recognized the potential value of seabed minerals in his book The Mineral Resources of the Sea, suggesting that the sea would become one of the major sources of the world’s minerals.
The increasing interest in marine mineral resources compelled Maltese Ambassador Arvid Pardo to address the General Assembly of the United Nations in November 1967. Quoting Mero’s book, Pardo warned the UN member states about the increasing interest and potential for conflict in the world’s oceans. His speech, recommending regulation beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, including governance of the potential wealth on the seabed, was well received. An ad hoc committee on the peaceful uses of the seabed and the ocean floor beyond the limits of national jurisdiction was set up. After 15 years of negotiations, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was finally agreed on and signed in 1982. Another 12 years led to its Implementing Agreement (IA) in 1994.
The International Seabed Authority (ISA), an intergovernmental body to organize, regulate and control all mineral-related activities on the seabed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (known legally as “the Area”), was subsequently established.
Benefit of Mankind
UNCLOS, ratified by 167 countries and the European Union (2018), calls for the development of mineral resources for the benefit of mankind, by attracting investment and technology while also requiring measures to be taken to ensure effective protection of the marine environment.
In 2001, the International Seabed Authority entered into 15-year exploration contracts with several national and industrial groups of pioneer investors. These first contracts were for polymetallic nodules in the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCFZ), located in 4000 to 6000 m water depth in the Pacific Ocean.
(related to CCFZ Polymetallic Nodules)
For the past 15 years, the ISA and other stakeholders have commissioned a series of scientific studies on the environmental aspects of deep-sea exploration and exploitation.
From 2002 until 2007, the ‘Kaplan Project’ assessed the biodiversity, species ranges, and gene flow in the abyssal Pacific nodule province (CCFZ). The results were published in ISA’s Technical Study 3 (1).
In 2010, thirty-one experts in ocean governance, industry and marine scientific research from 14 countries convened in France to discuss the environmental management of deep-sea chemosynthetic ecosystems and the justification of and consideration for a spatially-based approach to resource extraction and protection. The results were published in 2011 in Technical Study 9 (2).
In 2011, the Legal and Technical Commission (LTC) proposed an environmental management plan for the CCFZ (ISBA/17/LTC/7). Later that year a workshop was held in Fiji to examine the environmental management needs for exploration and exploitation of deep-sea minerals. The results of that workshop were published in Technical Paper 10 (3).
In 2013, recommendations for the guidance of contractors for the assessment of the possible environmental impacts arising from exploration for marine minerals were presented (ISBA/19/LTC/8).
In 2014, following a taxonomic standardization workshop in the Republic of South Korea, Technical Study 13 was published, focusing on deep sea macrofauna of the CCFZ (4).
In 2016, a workshop was held in Australia on the Environmental Assessment and Management for Exploitation of Minerals in the Area. The results of this workshop were published in Technical Study 16 (5). The same year a discussion paper was published on the enforcement and liability challenges for environmental regulation of deep-sea mining (6).
In January 2017, a discussion paper was published on the environmental matters related to the exploitation regulations (7). In March 2017, a workshop was held in Germany working towards an environmental management strategy, with the results published in Technical Study 17 (8).
In September 2017, a further workshop was held in Germany to discuss the design of impact reference zones and preservation reference zones in the Area, resulting in a briefing paper published in February 2018 (9).
In May 2019, a workshop was held in Pretoria, South Africa on the development of standards and guidelines for the Mining Code, resulting in a workshop report published by the ISA (10).
In early October 2019, a workshop was held in the United States of America entitled the “Deep CCZ Biodiversity Synthesis Workshop”. The aim of the workshop was to review and analyse recent seafloor ecosystem data from the CCFZ to synthesize patterns of biodiversity, community structure species ranges, genetic connectively, ecosystem function and habitat heterogeneity. A workshop report is expected to be published in the coming months.
Moving towards a legal framework for exploitation
The development of the legal framework for exploration and exploitation of polymetallic nodules is coordinated by the ISA. While a set of regulations on prospecting and exploration for polymetallic nodules were approved in 2000, the ISA is currently working towards a legal framework for exploitation, following a transparent, multi-stakeholder process, involving the input of many sectors including nation states, experts in marine science and industry, and civil society groups.
In 2012, a strategic workplan for the formulation of exploitation regulations for harvesting deep-sea minerals (polymetallic nodules) in the Area was first presented (ISBA/18/C/4).
In 2013, it was recommended that over the next three to five years an overall framework of activities be developed for the ISA in conjunction with potential polymetallic nodule developers and member countries to establish the internal structure and capacity of the Authority (ISBA/19/C/5).
In 2014, Technical Study 11 was published: Towards the Development of a Regulatory Framework for Polymetallic Nodule Exploitation in the Area (1). Subsequent to this Technical Study, the LTC considered a working paper to develop a discussion of financial terms under contracts for the future exploitation of resources in the Area (2). Furthermore, the first stage of a broader consultative process was launched. The survey aimed to involve a broad stakeholder base and sought input into the development of further rules, regulations and procedures to be drawn up by the ISA (3).
In 2015, a report was published for Members of the Authority and all stakeholders containing a draft framework for the regulation of exploitation activities, drawing on the 2014 stakeholder survey. That same year, a discussion paper on the development and implementation of a payment mechanism was released for comments (5). The LTC also proposed a list of seven priority deliverables, which the Council endorsed at its 21st Session. This included the preparation of a “zero draft” of the Exploitation Regulations (ISBA/21/C/16, Annex III).
In 2016, a zero-draft exploitation code, taking into consideration all previous stakeholder consultations, was made available for comments (6). Later that year, a discussion paper examined development a communications and engagement strategy for the ISA to ensure active stakeholder participation in the development of the code (7).
In 2017, a discussion paper was released on the implementation of the precautionary approach by the ISA (8). Later that year, draft regulations were presented for comments (ISBA/23/LTC/CRP.3*) and a timeline was agreed to have the final regulations approved by the Assembly in 2020 (ISBA/23/C/13).
In February 2018, a briefing note on the stakeholder submissions to the draft regulations was presented to the Council (ISBA/24/C/CRP.1). A next version of the draft regulations was published in May 2018 (ISBA/24/LTC/WP.1), followed by another revision in July 2018 (ISBA/24/LTC/WP.1/Rev1). Comments were received and incorporated into the July 2018 version of the draft regulations and were published in March 2019 (ISBA/25/C/WP.1). Comments on this latest version were to be received by 15 October 2019 and will be integrated into the next (and possibly final) version of the regulations in 2020.
The convention has been ratified by 167 states (164 United Nations member states plus the UN Observer state Palestine, as well as the Cook Islands and Niue) and the European Union An additional 14 UN member states have signed, but not ratified the convention.