The depletion of resources on land together with the increase in resource demand and the parallel development in technologies for deep sea exploration have brought the issue of deep-sea mining to the forefront of political, industrial and scientific debate.
Shallow submarine mining is already a reality in coastal areas, such as the De Beers Marine diamond mining operation in Namibia, in depths up to 150 metres. The current challenge is to move these operations to the deep sea, which contains vast resources of minerals, including manganese, iron, nickel, copper, cobalt, rare earths and gold, often associated with areas of volcanic activity.
Whereas nations are sovereign to regulate seabed mining within their economic exclusive zones, the access to resources in the seabed and ocean floor beyond these national jurisdiction waters, referred in United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as “the Area” is organized and controlled by the autonomous international organization called “International Seabed Authority” initially established under UNCLOS.
To date, the International Seabed Authority has entered into seventeen 15-year contracts for exploration for polymetallic nodules and polymetallic sulphides in the deep seabed with thirteen contractors. Eleven of these contracts are for exploration for polymetallic nodules in the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone in the Pacific, with two contracts for exploration for polymetallic sulphides in the South West Indian Ridge and the Mid Atlantic Ridge.
These contracts allow the contractors to explore specified parts of the deep oceans outside national jurisdiction, giving each contractor the exclusive right to explore an initial area of up to 150,000 km2. Russia, China, Korea, Germany and and France are the nations involved in most of these contracts, which include contracts for small nations, such as Nauru, Kiribati and Tonga, whom would likely open them up to tender by international companies.
Indeed, at a summit on Deep-Sea Mining in London two months ago Mark Brown, Minister of Minerals and Natural Resources of the Cook Islands, announced that the Cook Islands is embracing deep-sea mining as a pathway to multiply the country’s gross domestic product by up to 100 fold, as they assessed that the Cook Islands’ 2 million Km2 exclusive economic zone contains 10 billion tons of manganese nodules, which contain manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth minerals used in electronics. Negotiations are under way between the Cook Islands and companies in the UK, China, Korea, Japan and Norway, towards granting the first tenders within a year.
These facts suggest that we may soon face and underwater gold rush, but in most citizen’s minds deep-sea mining is still something for sci-fic movies.