In July, 2023, Canada declared its support for a global moratorium on deep seabed mining.
Now, it’s time to follow through. 

The future of deep sea mining is in flux – and Canada’s role is not certain. Following significant pressure from Canadian civil society, the Canadian government used the July 2023 International Seabed Authority (ISA) meetings to announce its support for a global moratorium on deep sea mining. Recognizing both the importance of marine ecosystems as a climate regulator and the lack of knowledge about possible impacts of deep sea mining, Canada joined a growing list of more than 15 countries calling for a moratorium, precautionary pause, or ban on the practice before it begins.

While this announcement came at an important moment — with regulations being negotiated at the ISA to allow, for the first time in history, deep sea mining in international waters — Canada’s intentions when it comes to the future of this industrial activity remain somewhat murky. 

In its announcement, Canada said it would not support proposals to mine the deep sea given both the absence of “a comprehensive understanding of seabed mining’s environmental impacts” and a “robust regulatory regime.” The government committed to not provisionally approve a plan for work, even as Canada’s own The Metals Company has indicated it will submit an application for an exploitation contract in 2024, with or without regulations in place. Canada’s statement says, “seabed mining should take place only if effective protection of the marine environment is provided through a rigorous regulatory structure, applying precautionary and ecosystem-based approaches, using science-based and transparent management, and ensuring effective compliance with a robust inspection mechanism.” 

Pacific Islanders, deep sea scientists, civil society organizations from around the world, global parliamentarians, governments, and beyond do not believe it will ever be  possible to mine the deep seabed without doing serious and irreversible harm. Destroying the very habitat necessary for life for most marine life on the deep seabed will never be sustainable. 

The moratorium announcement was certainly an important step by Minister Joly (Foreign Affairs), Minister Wilkinson (Natural Resources), and Minister Murray (Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard). But  the Canadian delegation to the ISA seems more focused on advancing a framework to allow for mining than preventing it, playing a mediating role between countries with drastically opposing views on the rush to exploit – or protect – the seabed in parts of the ocean known as the Common Heritage of Humankind.

 In the coming months, Canada will have ample opportunity to demonstrate  the strength of its commitment to a moratorium by stepping up and joining leadership countries, such as Chile, in supporting the all for a discussion on the call for a moratorium  at the ISA and by joining countries calling for  closing the two-year rule loophole that may allow deep-seabed mining proposals to be accepted while regulations have not been completed.  Canada must respond to the clear demands from civil society and be seen taking decisive, global leadership in protecting the high seas from the imminent threat of deep sea mining.

Canada’s history at the International Seabed Authority

While Canadian mining companies are on the forefront of profit-driven efforts to extend mining and its harmful impacts into the world’s oceans, until July 2023, Canada had failed to join the leadership countries that had already come out in favour of a ban, moratorium, or precautionary pause on deep seabed mining.

For many years the Canadian government was missing in action in international negotiations about the regulations and guidelines for mining  the seabed. Canada only sent one delegate to the International Seabed Authority (ISA) meetings in Jamaica and frequently missed opportunities to provide input on relevant documents. Canada’s failure to play an active role at the ISA in promoting protection of the marine environment, despite Canada’s international commitments to do so, raised serious questions about Canada’s commitment to protect the deep seabed from seabed mining. During this time the Canadian government also failed to respond to concerns raised by Canadians, failing even to respond to a joint letter from 19 Canadian organizations to six Government of Canada Ministries sent in February 2021.

Canada has regulations that would effectively ban deep seabed mining in Canadian territorial waters. Provisions under the Fisheries Act limit the amount of sediment (suspended solids) that may be released in fish bearing waters in recognition of the harmful effects on fish. Deep seabed mining models project that heavily-sedimented effluents will be ejected into the sea from a support ship 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The creation of large sediment plumes in the marine environment is widely recognized as one of the most harmful aspects of deep seabed mining, not only at the seabed itself, but also in the bio-rich mid-water regions where these effluents from the ship will be discharged. These plumes are projected to spread over great distances. However, if regulations for mining in international waters are completed Canada may “harmonize” our laws to conform with international regulations, thereby opening the door to deep seabed mining in Canadian waters. Note that at the IMPAC5 meetings in Vancouver in December 2022, Canada did not commit to a moratorium on deep seabed mining in either international or Canadian waters.

All of humanity will suffer the impacts of further degradation of the ocean’s ability to sustain life on Earth, but the most immediate impacts on food security will be felt by many of the world’s most vulnerable island and coastal communities. MiningWatch joins more than 700 marine scientists, global parliamentarians, Pacific and global citizens and governments in calling for a moratorium, ban, or precautionary pause on deep seabed mining.  

Canadian mining companies seek profits in the deep sea and in mining the markets

Nautilus Minerals Inc.

Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals Inc. secured the first global permit for deep seabed mining in 2011. The permit was granted by the government of Papua New Guinea for mining of hydrothermal vents in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea. Amid sustained opposition by Papua New Guinean coastal communities and international allies, the company went bankrupt in 2019, leaving the Government of Papua New Guinea with a debt of $125 million. Some of the early investors in Nautilus, such as Gerard Barron, profited when the company went public and raised over $400 million. Barron reportedly “turned a $226,000 investment into $31 million” in six years.

Nautilus founder David Heydon created another deep seabed mining company, Canada’s DeepGreen Resources in 2011, and brought Barron into that company as CEO.

The Metals Company 

DeepGreen became a public company in September 2021 – renamed as The Metals Company (TMC) – via a so-called “blank cheque” special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). While CEO Gerard Barron markets the new company to potential investors as providing a “sustainable and cost effective alternative to traditional land based extraction” critics warn that “aside from being fundamentally unsustainable (…) the business proposal (…) is riddled with a multitude of risks” including “[w]orldwide concern from business, governments, scientists and civil society calling variously for a moratorium or ban on DSM.” Since then, The Metals Company has faced numerous setbacks, including financial, loss of investors, legal action against The Metals Company and in terms of its inadequate environmental performance.

The Metals Company holds three exploration licenses targeting polymetallic nodules in the Clarion Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean. These licenses are held through sponsorships by the small Pacific countries of Nauru and Tonga and a partnership with Kiribati.

The Metals Company’s exploration permits derive from an unprecedented intergovernmental body called the International Seabed Authority (ISA) “with 168 members, each with their own political priorities and interests…attempting to act as a minerals licensing, monitoring and enforcement, and revenue collection agency.”

Profits for The Metals Company’s investors depend on the company receiving an exploitation license from the ISA, which is still attempting to come up with rules and regulations for any future seabed mining. Draft regulations released for comment to date are so weak as to raise significant concern that the ISA is rushing to get the regulations done on time to meet the industry’s ambitious commitments to investors.

Concern about the ISA’s rushed regulatory development process became heightened after Nauru, the Pacific island state sponsor of TMC’s wholly-owned subsidiary Nauru Ocean Resources Incorporated (NORI), triggered a never before used “two year rule” in June of 2021, just months before The Metals Company went public on the Nasdaq stock exchange. By doing so, Nauru has put undue pressure on the ISA to complete the regulations for deep seabed mining by June of 2023. 

In August of 2022, a damning investigative expose by the New York Times came out called “Secret Data, Tiny Islands and a Quest for Treasure on the Ocean Floor.” This piece documents the long-term relationship between now-Secretary General of the International Seabed Authority, Michael Lodge, and David Heydon. The article exposes that confidential data held by the International Seabed Authority with regard to very lucrative nodule areas – which had been set aside for developing countries – was shared with Heydon by Micheal Lodge, leading ultimately to these areas becoming concessions of DeepGreen, and now The Metals Company.

Polymetallic nodules have taken millions of years to form and are critical habitat substrate for a surprisingly biodiverse deep sea ecosystem. The polymetallic nodules are also essential for food-web integrityScientists agree that the risk to deep sea biodiversity, much of which has yet to be discovered, is significant and that mitigating eco-system destruction from mining is impossible.