Deep-sea mining is concerned with the exploitation of mineral deposits on the seabed. Insofar as such deposits lie beyond a country’s exclusive economic zone, i.e. on the seabed underneath the high seas, deep-sea mining is regulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Implementing Agreement to Part XI of UNCLOS. This is an extremely specific regime based on the principle enshrined in UNCLOS that the international seabed and its mineral resources are the “common heritage of mankind.”
The UN body in charge of regulating deep-sea mining is the International Seabed Authority (ISA) based in Jamaica. Deep-sea mining activity on the international seabed requires a licence from the ISA.
So far, the ISA has granted 31 exploration licences, two of which have been granted to Germany. Such licences entitle their holders to conduct exploration activities on the seabed of the areas in respect of which the corresponding licence has been obtained.
Actual mining activity on the international seabed, however, requires a specific exploitation licence from the ISA. To date, no such licence has been issued. A pre-requisite for any exploitation licence to be issued is a published set of official exploitation rules - known as the Mining Code - to set the standards to be met by exploitation activity, in particular as regards the preservation of the marine environment. Although draft exploitation rules exist, these are still going through the adoption process within the ISA.
The South Pacific island of Nauru has reached an agreement with an international mining company which could in principle allow deep-sea mining to commence once the mining company receives an exploitation licence.
However, environmental issues in relation to deep-sea mining remain a very big concern. The effect of deep-sea mining on ecosystems on the deep seabed is not understood. On 24 June 2022, the European Commission published the EU agenda on International Ocean Governance which cites as a “key priority” the need to protect the seabed and a ban on deep-sea mining as a way to achieve this. Immediately thereafter, during the second UN Oceans Conference held in Portugal, France’s president called for a precautionary ban on deep-sea mining, in what is believed to be the first such call on the part of a country which holds an exploration licence. Currently, therefore, deep-sea mining remains subject to significant headwind.