Deep sea mining: we must put our planet’s interests first

The deep ocean might seem distant, but human life depends on it. This vast area, covering 95% of Earth’s living space, absorbs the CO2 generated by human activity, regulates temperatures and weather patterns through its currents, and generates nutrients which feed billions.

We know very little about our planet’s last frontier, only 20% of the deep sea having been mapped. We do know, however, that it holds incredible riches. Scientists believe that as many as 10 million species inhabit the deep ocean, the vast majority of them undiscovered.

Similarly, the ocean is rich in minerals. This has promped companies and countries to argue for the right to strip the deep seabed for its copper, cobalt, nickel and other metals.

While this might seem a useful alternative to mining on land, scientists are clear that deep sea mining represents a huge risk for the health of the ocean, and by extension the health of the planet.

Stripping the sea floor would wipe out coral and sponge ecosystems which have developed over millions of years, spread sediment over vast ocean areas, generate noise and light pollution, and threaten the ocean’s vital ability to absorb CO2.

Setting the environmental risks aside, it is increasingly evident that there is no economic need for deep sea mining. Technologies are emerging which will allow us to recycle electronic waste and develop cleaner and more efficient alternatives.

As a result, business appetite for deep sea mining is dwindling. Vehicle and technology companies including Volkswagen, Renault, Google and Samsung are calling for a moratorium on mining the ocean. The giant shipping firm Maersk is the latest big investor (following on from Lockheed Martin) to divest itself of its deep sea mining investments.

Against this backdrop, a crucial decision on the fate of the deep sea is looming. In July this year, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the body responsible for regulating human activity in the deep sea, will decide whether and how deep seabed mining should proceed.

The choice facing the ISA’s 36 Member States is clear. If they distribute mining licences to commercial speculators, we risk massive and irreversible environmental damage.

An increasing number of ISA members are calling for a pause or a ban on deep seabed mining. In July, it will be crucial that member countries choose a sustainable, generative, and equitable future for billions of people, rather than favor short-term economic gain of just a few.

The responsibility of safeguarding our planet’s last frontier lies with us. It is also our duty to ensure the next generations can continue to benefit from the ocean’s life-sustaining gifts.


You can watch a clip from my presentation to an event on Deep Sea Mining organised in Geneva by IUCN and RIFS Potsdam.

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