The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is comprised of 167 Member States, and the European Union. All Parties to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) are members of ISA. ISA is mandated as the organization through which Parties to UNCLOS shall organize and control all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area, known also as “the Area.”
The international seabed area - the part which is under ISA jurisdiction - is the seabed and ocean floor and the subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. The international seabed area represents around 50 per cent of the total area of the world’s oceans.
Two principal organs establish the policies and govern the work of ISA, the Assembly, where all 168 members are represented, and a 37-member Council elected by the Assembly. The Council has two advisory bodies, the Legal and Technical Commission (30 members) which advises the Council on all matters relating to the exploration and exploitation of non-living marine resources, such as polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts, and the Finance Committee (15 members) that deals with budgetary and related matters.
Membership of ISA is open to countries and international organizations (e.g. the European Union) who are Parties to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Part of ISA’s mandate and policies is to promote the orderly, safe and responsible management and development of the resources of the deep seabed area for the benefit of mankind as a whole. In doing so, ISA has the duty to adopt appropriate rules, regulations and procedures to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment from harmful effects that may arise from mineral exploration and exploitation in the Area. Another critical aspect of ISA’s mandate is to promote and encourage the conduct of marine scientific research in the seabed area as well as coordinate and disseminate the results of such research and analysis.
No mining operations have started anywhere in the world. Currently, exploration activities undertaken in the seabed area are aimed at gathering the necessary information on the location and quality of the minerals of the seabed as well as to collect all the necessary environmental information. To date, ISA has approved 29 contracts for exploration involving 22 different countries and covering more than 1.3 million square kilometers of the seabed. This represents 0.7 percent of the international deep seabed area and 0.3 percent of the world’s oceans. Twelve of these contracts are sponsored by developing countries. Thirteen countries and one intergovernmental consortium currently have contracts for the exploration of polymetallic nodules, seven countries for the exploration of polymetallic sulphides, and five for the exploration of cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.
The mining code when completed, will provide a holistic regulatory framework for the exploitation of the resources in the Area, thus, reinforcing the provisions of the Convention especially with respect to the effective protection of the marine environment, marine biodiversity and life at sea.
Finalization of the mining code is subject to the decision of the members of ISA. The draft regulations must be provisionally adopted by the ISA Council and approved by all members at the Assembly, with the final decision taken by consensus. According to the current roadmap, it is envisaged that the draft regulations could be adopted in 2020, with the implementation standards and guidelines issued thereafter.
Deep seabed mining can begin when the exploitation regulations currently being developed by ISA have been agreed and provisionally adopted by the ISA Council and approved by all members of ISA at the Assembly. The regulations will create the legal and technical framework for exploitation.
ISA registered seven Voluntary Commitments at the 2017 UN Conference on Oceans aimed at achieving concretely one or more goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda. Five are directly oriented to reinforce ISA’s efforts towards developing countries and in particular, Small Island Developing States (SIDS), Least Developed Countries (LDCs), and Land Locked Developing Countries (LLDCs). These include promoting marine scientific research, enhancing the role of women in research, increasing the socio-economic benefits for SIDS, and supporting Africa’s Blue Economy.
The benefits to mankind of deep seabed exploration extend far beyond simply knowledge of the mineral resources but include scientific knowledge of the marine environment that will be critical to realizing all aspects of the Blue Economy, as well as technology development.
Marine minerals have the potential to contribute to the well-being and socio-economic development of the people of all nations. Firstly, as the world’s population continues to grow, from 7 billion today to 9.6 billion in 2050, the demand for critical minerals will rise. To achieve the objective of a future society based on renewable energy and technology, it will be critical to find new sources of reliable, clean and ethically sourced mineral resources. Secondly, the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea has set aside the international deep seabed area as the common heritage of mankind, to be utilized for the benefit of mankind as a whole. This means the financial other economic benefits derived from mineral resources must be equitably shared among all states, including Small Island Developing States (SIDS), Least Developed Countries (LDCs), and Land Locked Developing Countries (LLDCs).
ISA is taking all necessary measures in accordance with UNCLOS to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment, including marine biodiversity from harmful effects which may arise from activities in the Area. This is a core part of ISA’s mandate. The draft regulations for deep seabed mining will incorporate specific provisions to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment and conservation of marine biodiversity, human health and safety and equitable sharing of financial and other economic benefits. ISA also established a Regional Environmental Management Plan (REMP) in the Clarion-Clipperton-Zone in 2012, which is an area-based management tool comprising nine Areas of Particular Environmental Interests (APEIs), where no mining activities will take place. ISA is in the process of developing REMPs in other areas where exploration contracts have been granted.
Contractors will be required to conduct an environmental impact assessment in line with the rules, regulations and procedures set out by ISA before they can begin any exploitation activities. In line with the provisions of UNCLOS, the draft exploitation regulations also include provisions on an inspection regime for the purposes of monitoring and enforcing compliance with the applicable legal framework.