The International Seabed Authority (ISA) was established to manage mining on the international seabed and protect the marine environment from its harmful effects. Finding a balance is a formidable challenge.
All mining operations, on land or at sea, cause damage to the environment. Research strongly suggests that deep sea mining will lead to loss of biodiversity, losses that may be permanent.1 The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) requires the ISA to manage activities on the international seabed “for the benefit of mankind as a whole” and “to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment “2 harmful effects of mining. For the ISA to fulfill its protection obligations, it will have to manage the ecological impacts not only on the mine sites but also in the regions around them.
A Regional Environmental Management Plan (PREG) is a tool that ISA will use to understand and manage a particular stretch of seabed. In recent sessions of the ISA Council and Assembly, member states have called for the development of these plans as a prerequisite for mining in any region. REMPs would include both area-based and rule-based management tools, including a network of large non-mining areas that could serve as refuges for marine species and preserve ecosystem functions.
Since REMPs are essential for the protection of the marine environment, they must be incorporated into the entire ISA mining code. The ISA should adopt formal and binding regulations that no mining can take place in an area not covered by a regional environmental management plan.
What is a REMP?
A REMP defines the objectives, rules and management tools for a specific region where mining could take place. Different regions and habitats require different rules and thresholds to ensure effective protection. These plans should therefore be tailored to the ecosystem structure and functions of the area in question, including its different habitats, community structure, biodiversity, connectivity and resilience. In general, there are two major classes of management tools for REMPs:
- Based on area. All REMPs should conserve areas of the seabed through a network of large non-mining areas. These areas are called Areas of Special Environmental Interest (APEI) and their location should cover the full range of habitats, biodiversity and ecosystem functions within the overall management area. Scientific principles should guide the development of the APEI network, and placement decisions should be based on spatial analyzes of physical, geochemical, ecological and social datasets.
- Other management measures. REMPs are more than maps showing where contractors cannot mine. They should include measures for managing areas where mining is permitted, such as regional-scale baseline data collection and analysis, and processes to predict and manage the cumulative impacts of multiple mining operations or marine activities in the same region. Other measures could be region or species specific. Certain habitats could be mapped and selected to receive specific protections. The main breeding or migration seasons could be identified in the region, to inform the introduction of temporal restrictions on mining.
Underwater sites of historical or cultural significance could also be recognized for protection purposes.
What makes a good REMP?
A successful regional environmental management plan will ensure effective protection of the marine environment, maintain biodiversity and safeguard ecosystem functions during any mining operation in this area of the international seabed. It would include APEI networks and region-specific mapping, metrics and thresholds.
A well-designed plan would be based on generally accepted and widely used principles for marine spatial planning and the design of protected area networks and:
- Include APEI networks that are representing the range of habitats, species and ecosystem functions in the region.
- Include safeguards for ecologically significant areas that harbor unique biodiversity and provide important ecosystem services or functions.
- To offer connectivity for the people. APEIs must be close enough that larvae and other dispersing life stages can move between them in order to maintain and/or restore population sizes.
- Reproduce protections so that species, habitats and ecological processes are covered in more than one protected area.
- To assure viable sites of sufficient size, populations and protections to retain their ecological functions and maintain self-sustaining populations.
- Draw APEI networks that protect 30 to 50% of the total management area.3 The ISA is committed to protecting 30-50% of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the eastern Pacific Ocean, the only area with a management plan.4 Scientists have called for similar safeguards in other regions.
Once in place, an APEI network and a region’s management plan should be evaluated against an objective set of performance parameters. The placement of IEPAs should only be open to review and revision if the ISA and the contractors can guarantee that there will be no net loss of biodiversity or if their performance parameters are not met. APEI networks and other protections specified in a REMP should remain in place until there are no active contracts remaining in the area and areas affected by mining activities have fully recovered from these impacts.
Current and future REMPs
In 2019, the REMP CCZ was the only existing one. The ISA intends to update this plan and develop new ones for each region with exploration contracts.
The ISA Council approved the CCZ REMP in 2012 as “one of the appropriate and necessary measures to ensure effective protection of the marine environment”.5 The scientists developed the plan’s APEI network during a series of workshops and submitted several design scenarios to ISA.6 Scientists have developed a plan for a network of nine major IEPAs and a wide range of additional conservation-focused management objectives. The final REMP, as approved by the ISA Council and Assembly, moved the proposed IEPAs outward from the center of the CCZ so that no protected areas overlap with current exploration areas.
The CCZ REMP was approved for an initial period of three years. The plan included the Revised Network of Nine Protected Areas (APEI) and a series of additional management objectives. The ISA Legal and Technical Commission reviewed the REMP in 2016,7 noting that a majority of these management objectives had not been implemented. The review recommended the addition of two additional IEPAs, the development of guidelines for impact reference areas and preservation reference areas, and the creation of an expert working group. The ISA plans to revise the CCZ REMP at the end of 2019 to incorporate important data acquired in recent years.
In July 2018, the ISA also approved a two-year plan to support the development of REMPs to cover the Western Pacific seamount region (hosting ferromanganese crusts, a mineral resource being explored) as well than hydrothermal vent systems in the mid-Atlantic. and the Indian Oceans (under exploration for polymetallic sulphides). ISA has planned a series of workshops for each area. The international community faces the daunting task of delineating regions, proposing IEPAs and other conservation protections, and specifying the parameters by which the effectiveness of REMPs can be judged.
REMPs should be developed with the active participation and contribution of all stakeholders since, as stated in UNCLOS, the seabed is the “common heritage of mankind”. Equally important, no mining should be undertaken in any region until a REMP for that region has been formally approved.
- LA Levin et al., “Defining ‘serious harm’ to the marine environment in the context of seabed mining,” Shipping policy 74 (2016): 245-59, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2016.09.032; HJ Niner et al., “Deep Sea Mining with No Net Loss of Biodiversity – An Impossible Goal”, Marine Science Frontiers 5, no. 53 (2018), https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2018.00053.
- United Nations General Assembly, Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 140 (16 November 1994), https://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/closindx.htm; United Nations General Assembly, Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 145 (November 16, 1994), https://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/closindx.htm.
- M. Lodge et al., “Seabed Mining: International Seabed Authority Environmental Management Plan for the Clarion-Clipperton Area; a partnership approach, Shipping policy 49 (2014): 66-72, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X14001171; Convention on Biological Diversity, “Conference of the Parties 9 Decision IX/20” (2008), https://www.cbd.int/decision/cop/?id=11663; DC Dunn et al., “A Strategy for Biodiversity Conservation on Mid-Ocean Ridges from Deep Sea Mining”, Scientists progress 4, no. 7 (2018): eaar4313, https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/advances/4/7/eaar4313.full.pdf.
- International Seabed Authority, “Environmental Management Plan for the Clarion-Clipperton Zone” (2011), https://www.isa.org.jm/documents/isba17ltc7.
- International Seabed Authority, “Council Decision on an Environmental Management Plan for the Clarion-Clipperton Area” (2012), https://www.isa.org.jm/documents/isba18c22.
- LM Wedding et al., “From Principles to Practice: A Spatial Approach to Systematic High Seas Conservation Planning”, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280, no. 1773 (2013), https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/abs/10.1098/rspb.2013.1684.
- International Seabed Authority, “Review of the Implementation of the Environmental Management Plan for the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone” (2016), https://www.isa.org.jm/document/isba22ltc12.