Two Years of Deep-sea Mining in Review: Confusion and Gridlock at the 26th Session of the International Seabed Authority

As in-person negotiations on the future of exploitation in the deep ocean resume this week in Kingston Jamaica, we reflect back on the last two years of development as reported on our sister site, the Deep-sea Mining Observer. This article first appeared two years ago, on March 19, 2020.


The 26th Session of the International Seabed Authority convened this February to continue the long and complex negotiations over the draft Mining Code and work towards consensus among the various stakeholders. 2020 was set as the target year to get the Mining Code finalized, but many delegates left Jamaica feeling frustrated with the pace of deliberations and a growing sense that the 2020 deadline was far too optimistic. Chief among the challenges was a recognition that the Council is now further from reaching agreement on the financial model than it was at the end of the 25th Session and a lack of clarity over the composition of the Legal and Technical Commission as it pertains to the representation of both geographic distribution and technical expertise.

Procedural Gridlock slows negotiations

The overwhelming sentiment of member state delegates, NGO’s, and even contractors was a sense of dysfunction and confusion, best highlighted by the fact that over a 5-day meeting, the Council went through three new presidents. First, as outgoing Council President Lumka Yengeni was absent from the meeting, outgoing regional Vice-president Luis del Solar assumed the chair to preside over the selection of a new council president. Usually, a Regional Group arrives at the ISA with a nominee for council president already prepared. Not this time. A three hour delay to select the president of the 26th Session of the ISA on the morning of the first day set the tone for the week. 

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Two Years of Deep-sea Mining in Review: As deep-sea mining inches towards production, a global pandemic brings negotiations to a halt.

As in-person negotiations on the future of exploitation in the deep ocean resume this week in Kingston Jamaica, we reflect back on the last two years of development as reported on our sister site, the Deep-sea Mining Observer. This article first appeared two years ago, on March 18, 2020.


When the first part of 26th Session of the International Seabed Authority convened last month, there was a new stakeholder impacting the pace of deliberations. COVID-19 had just begun to spread beyond China and nations across the world were limiting travel in the hopes of containing the outbreak. With Jamaica imposing a 14-day quarantine on any traveler coming from China, the Chinese delegation was notably absent, with a delegation from the New York mission standing in for their colleagues. But they weren’t the only delegation affected. Multiple delegates whose travel was supported by the Commonwealth we’re also unable to attend. 

Though those absences did slow down deliberations and cast a pallor over the proceedings, they were nothing compared with what happened next. 

Earlier this week, Forbes published a contributor article entitled “Will Ocean Seabed Mining Delay The Discovery Of Potential Coronavirus Vaccines?” Though hyperbolic in its reaction to an industry which has yet to even begin production, ironically Forbes may have gotten the situation reversed: long before deep-sea mining has even the remote potential to delay the development of novel pharmaceuticals, the COVID-19 pandemic will almost certainly delay the development of deep-sea mining. 

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Discovery of a Great Hammerhead Nursery

Happy Shark Week (if you celebrate), and I’m so excited to share our newly published open access paper about our research on juvenile great hammerheads (Sphyrna mokarran) with you! (It’s been hard to keep this one to ourselves).

Great hammerheads are an iconic shark species which have undergone significant population declines globally. In 2019, they were assessed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, which reported overfishing as the greatest threat to their survival. Great hammerheads are known to make incredible long-range migrations and cross state and international boundaries, making them challenging to protect as adults. Little is known about where they are born or where they spend their early years of their life, although there have been scattered reports of juveniles from the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Keys, and one report from Georgia.

Identifying habitats that are important to juvenile sharks matters because young sharks are often the most vulnerable individuals in a population, and their survival is vital to the future of their species. Many juvenile sharks spend time in “nursery areas”—places where they are less likely to be eaten by predators, or where food resources are abundant. They then expand their ranges as they age, covering more distance as they grow larger. Identifying nurseries has long been a conservation priority for managers and scientists. After several years of research, our team has collected the first scientific evidence of a nursery area for great hammerhead sharks on the Atlantic coast of the United States—within sight of the skyline of Miami, Florida.

There’s a three-part established test for an area to be identified as a shark nursery: 1) Juvenile sharks are more commonly encountered in that habitat than elsewhere; 2) they remain in the area for extended periods; and 3) The area is used repeatedly over years. Our results demonstrate that this area definitely meets two of these criteria, with preliminary evidence that it also meets the third. We’ve found the same habitat may be a nursery area for several other shark species too, including scalloped hammerheads, another Critically Endangered species!

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A sea turtle robot looking fearsome on a blue background.

I built a horrifying cyborg sea turtle hatchling so you can learn a little bit about behavioral ecology

Sea turtles, in case you didn’t know, are pretty great. These giant marine reptiles have been chilling out in the ocean for over 100 million years, largely unchanged. But their evolutionary foray onto land along with the rest of the tetrapods (a move largely regarded as a mistake by most extant species) left them with one one critical vulnerability: they have to return to land to lay their eggs, and their hatchlings must survive a grueling march to the sea within minutes of emerging into the world.

To find their way back to the sea, sea turtle hatchlings emerge from their nests in the darkness and track light cues on the horizon, tracking the glow of starlight on waves. This becomes a huge problem when the beach is littered with the pollution of artificial lights, leading hatchlings away from the sea and towards streets, resorts, and beachfront bars. Light pollution is such a serious problem for sea turtle survival, that many municipalities which host turtle nesting beaches ban the use of superfluous lighting during nesting season. 

Protecting sea turtle nests and nesting sea turtles, particularly the massive, primordial leatherback sea turtle, is a core mission of the Dominica Sea Turtle Conservation Organization (DomSetCO). Leatherbacks are exceptionally sensitive to light. On the top of their heads is a translucent patch of skin directly above the pineal gland. This window to the turtle’s brain serves as a rudimentary third eye which can sense how light changes.

You can help support DomSetCO by donating to our campaign to build the Rosalie Conservation Center, a hybrid rum distillery, fish hatchery, and conservation center in Dominica. Drink rum, save turtles. 

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The most massive ‘massive sardine’ discovered in the deep waters of Japan

This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is reprinted here with permission. For the latest news and analysis about the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to DSM Observer here: http://dsmobserver.com/subscribe/

Featured image: Colossal Slickhead, from Fujiwara et al. 2021

Even with the intense research focus of the last twenty years, the deep sea is still almost entirely unexplored. New species are par for the course every time a fresh sample is recovered from the abyssal plain. The vast biodiversity of the deep seafloor is offset by a biomass deficit; the denizens of the deep sea, with a few notable exceptions, are few and far between, their size often limited by the paucity of food available to them. While giants like the Japanese King Crab or the Giant Deep-sea Isopod do occur, the vast majority of deep-sea species are relatively small. 

The discovery of new species in the deep ocean is common, but the discovery of new giants in the deep sea is extremely rare. 

Last month, a research team from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) led by Dr. Yoshihiro Fujiwara and the Deep-sea Biodiversity Research Group announced the discovery of a new species of slickhead from the deep waters around Suruga Bay. Weighing in at 25 kilograms and measuring 140 centimeters, the Colossal Slickhead, described from four specimens recovered from depths greater than 2000 meters, is the largest species of slickhead (a group of deep-sea fishes found in waters deeper than 1,000 meters) yet described

In Japan, slickheads are commonly called sekitori iwashi–’massive sardines’. In recognition of its immense size, the researchers gave this most massive of massive sardines the common name yokozuna iwashi, after the title given to champion sumo wrestlers. 

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Beyond Batteries: exploring the demand for scandium and tellurium from the deep ocean

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2020 issue of the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is reprinted here with permission. For the latest news and analysis about the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to DSM Observer here: http://dsmobserver.com/subscribe/

Featured image: ferromanganese crust being recovered from Tropic Seamount. Photo courtesy NERC.

For the last decade, next-generation batteries have been the motivating force for the deep-sea mining industry. The electrification of the world’s vehicle fleets to wean society off of fossil fuels has created huge demands for cobalt, nickel, and other metals necessary for high-density batteries. The demand has placed the green revolution in a position where we either need to unlock new reserves of these essential metals or fundamentally change how we make batteries. 

While new battery technologies promise to reduce or eliminate the need for cobalt and other metals, unlocking the raw materials needed to energize electric vehicles isn’t the only mineral supply chain that can support commercial exploitation of the deep seafloor. The critical minerals found in polymetallic nodules, seafloor massive sulphides, and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts are being eyed for a variety of production needs, both commercial and strategic. 

It was the manganese content of polymetallic nodules that originally caught the eye of prospectors in the 1960s and 1970s looking to exploit the mineral wealth of the deep oceans. Useful in the creation of steel and aluminum alloys, as well as a lead replacement in internal combustion engines, and as an electron acceptor in dry cell batteries, among other uses, the market for manganese crashed in the 1980s as more accessible sources came online and alternative technologies mitigated its demand. As the 12th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, global manganese production more than satisfied demand. Since 2000, manganese has been used as a substitute for copper and nickel in several US coins. 

But manganese and cobalt aren’t the only metal that occurs in abundance beneath the waves. Gold, nickel, copper, and rare earth elements are also commonly cited as viable resources to justify exploitation in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Two metals that aren’t quite as frequently discussed but may, nevertheless, prove attractive to deep-sea mining contractors, are scandium and tellurium. 

Scandium is a particularly challenging resource. It is used to produce strong, lightweight aluminium alloys for aerospace components, as well as, in much lower quantities, in the manufacture of some sporting equipment and firearms. Only a handful of scandium operations exist, producing 15 to 20 tons of scandium per year as a byproduct of other mineral extraction. This represents about half the global demand, creating a powerful incentive to develop new and novel scandium prospects. 

Scandium occurs in uniquely high quantities in polymetallic nodules and ferromanganese crust off the northern coasts of Alaska within the United States Exclusive Economic Zone. Scandium is also found in metal enriched muds in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone associated with Minamitorishima Island. Much like other deep-sea elements, scandium, and its applications in making lightweight, energy efficient aircraft, makes it potentially an important component of the green revolution. 

Tellurium is one of the rarest metals on Earth. It is a technology-critical element–it is extremely important for the development of emerging technologies. Tellurium is used in the production of semiconductors, fiber optic cables, and solar panels, among other uses. It is produced as a byproduct in copper and lead refining and is produced primarily within the United States, Japan, Canada, and Peru. A little more than 100 tons of tellurium are produced every year. 

Most critically, tellurium is a key component of cadmium telluride solar cells; efficient, thin film solar cells which are more efficient at absorbing light than silicon-based solar cells. Cadmium telluride solar panels are cheaper per kilowatt than conventional silicon panels and are lighter and easier to deploy. Tellurium occurs in abundance in mineral-rich crusts of the Tropic Seamount, a mountain in the middle of the Atlantic, just south of the Canary Islands. The deposits on this seamount, which is alternately claimed to fall within the EEZs of both Spain and Morocco, may be 50,000 times richer than all terrestrial sources

Scandium and tellurium are the oddball metals in the push to mine the deep-sea. While elements like cobalt, nickel, and copper are needed in massive quantities to supply an exploding demand for next-generation batteries, neither scandium nor tellurium production is needed at that scale. Their relative rarity and the novelty of their occurrence in a few deposits on the seafloor creates a much different value proposition for these resources. As critical minerals with sparse terrestrial sources, barring a future surge in demand, accessing seafloor deposits represents a strategic, rather than purely commercial, decision.

Scandium demand, in particular, could finally mark the long-expected return of the United States to the deep-sea mining industry. 

The United States moves towards exploration and exploitation of critical mineral resources in the deep ocean.

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2020 issue of the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is reprinted here with permission. For the latest news and analysis about the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to DSM Observer here: http://dsmobserver.com/subscribe/

Featured Image: US Exclusive Economic Zone (note: Navassa territorial claim is disputed by Haiti).

Since the signing of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the creation of the International Seabed Authority, the United States of America has been a shadow partner in the growing deep-sea mining industry. Though the United States provides scientific and technical expertise, and is a de facto participant through American-owned subsidiaries incorporated in sponsoring states, the nation with the world’s second largest exclusive economic zone never ratified the core treaties and thus has limited influence at negotiations.

While the United States made significant contributions to the early development of the industry, it has been largely inactive since the mid 1980’s, focusing instead on its offshore fossil fuel resources and leaving critical minerals in the deep ocean largely untouched. Within the US EEZ surrounding the country’s Pacific territories, in particular, a push for large, remote marine protected areas in the form of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, deep-sea mining has been effectively prohibited.  

The United States continues to assert claims over two large lease blocks in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, citing existing precedent from prior to the ISA’s creation, though no recent attempts have been made to exploit those blocks. The ISA, for its part, continues to hold those lease blocks in reserve, should the US eventually join all but a few nations who have ratified the Law of the Sea.

That general non-involvement at the policy level may soon change. In a recent Executive Order on Addressing the Threat to the Domestic Supply Chain from Reliance on Critical Minerals from Foreign Adversaries by the now-outgoing President of the United States tasked the Department of the Interior with assessing any potential national security threat posed by the nation’s reliance on critical mineral imports, securing a domestic supply chain, and funding projects to increase critical mineral production within the United States. 

“By signing the Executive Order, President Trump declared a National Emergency and called for action to expand the domestic mining industry, support mining jobs, alleviate unnecessary permitting delays, and reduce our Nation’s dependence on China for critical minerals.” says Beverly Winston of BOEM’s Office of Public Affairs. “In the few weeks since the order was signed, leadership at relevant Department of the Interior agencies have been actively engaged in identifying specific actions that can be taken to implement the order.” 

Executive Orders are not always the best indicator of changing government priorities. A more definitive approach to identifying significant policy shifts is to examine contracting opportunities through the US General Services Administration. Soon after the President’s Executive Order, a solicitation for Geophysical, Geological, and Environmental Data Collection and Analysis supporting Outer Continental Shelf Marine Minerals Stewardship contract bids of indefinite duration and indefinite quantity was posted, providing funding for a four year marine critical minerals exploration campaign through the US Department of the Interior. 

This call is a much more substantial indicator that the US is planning a more aggressive push into deep-sea minerals in the coming years. In a possibly unrelated move, the US Geological Survey is recruiting a postdoctoral fellow in Geology, geochemistry and global context of deep-ocean marine minerals.

With respect to BOEM’s four-year horizon, Winston adds that “BOEM is actively collaborating with partner agencies, such as USGS and NOAA, to better understand our marine mineral resources and associated biological communities. BOEM is a member of the newly created National Ocean Mapping, Exploration, and Characterization Council, and also co-chairs the Interagency Working Group on Ocean Exploration and Characterization. Both of these bodies will work to identify priority areas for exploration and characterization, and to coordinate personnel and funds to study the priority areas.”

While these moves point to increased deep-sea mining exploration within the US EEZ, they don’t provide nearly as much clarity on the United States’ future plans for the Area. In recent ISA council meetings, the US delegation has intervened to assert their existing claims in the CCZ, however no recent actions suggest an intent to attempt to exploit those claims. 

Notably, the recent Executive Order is directed at the Department of the Interior, while it is the Department of Commerce, within which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is housed, who would initiate any exploration or exploitation in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. 

“Currently under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA),” concludes Winston, “BOEM’s leasing authority is limited to the Outer Continental Shelf offshore the coastal states. NOAA is the implementing agency for the Deep Sea Hard Minerals Resource Act, which establishes an interim domestic licensing and permitting regime for deep seabed hard mineral exploration and mining beyond the EEZ pending adoption of an acceptable international regime.”

Though the election of President-Elect Joe Biden will likely have substantial influence on future priorities for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, it is too early to know, according to BOEM representatives, how a new administration will impact critical minerals policy. With a core policy focus on climate change, it is almost certain that securing access to the critical minerals necessary to building next-generation energy infrastructure will remain a priority for the next administration. 

Sharks, Squalene, and a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine

A bluntnose sixgill shark (Hexanchus griseus). Photo credit: NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer.

Hi, friends at Southern Fried Science!

You’ve probably seen in the media lately that there’s been a lot of coverage about whether sharks are being killed for SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. With an awesome undergraduate co-author, I’ve tried to gather some facts about what is happening (or might happen) and what it means. You can read a preprint of that work here, or read on for a short FAQ in plain English.

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How anglerfish hack their immune system to hang on to a mate

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2020 issue of the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is reprinted here with permission. For the latest news and analysis about the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to DSM Observer here: http://dsmobserver.com/subscribe/

When you live in the darkness of the abyss, finding a partner is hard and keeping a partner is even harder. Deep-sea anglerfish, one of the iconic ambassador species of the deep ocean, have found a novel solution to this problem–dwarf males are sexual parasites that latch onto the body of the much larger female anglerfish and then physically fuse to their partner, becoming permanently attached to the point where they share a circulatory and digestive system. 

Parasitic dwarf males are uncommon, but not unheard of, throughout the animal kingdom. Osedax, the deep sea bone eating worm, also maintains a harem of dwarf males in a specialized chamber in their trunk. But few species, and no other vertebrates, go to quite the extremes of the anglerfish. And with good reason. 

Vertebrate immune systems have a long shared history. The Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) is a suite of genes shared among all gnathostomes–the taxonomic group that contains all jawed vertebrates, from fish to fishermen. It creates the proteins which provide the foundation for the adaptive immune system, the core complex which allows bodies to tell self from no-self, detect pathogens, and reject non-self invaders. Suppressing the MHC seriously inhibits a vertebrate’s ability to fight off infection. 

Incidentally, not all deep-sea anglerfish have parasitic dwarf males, and the species most often presented as a type specimen in the popular press, the humpback anglerfish Melanocetus johnsonii, is one of several that do not have permanently attached parasitic dwarf males. M. johnsonii males are free-swimming throughout their life, they’re just small and clingy.

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Bioprospecting in Practice: How a drug goes from the ocean to the clinic.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is reprinted here with permission. For the latest news and analysis about the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to DSM Observer here: http://dsmobserver.com/subscribe/

Bioprospecting, the discovery of new pharmaceutical compounds, industrial chemicals, and novel genes from natural systems, is frequently cited among the critical non-mineral commercial activities that yield value from the deep ocean. Isolating new chemicals or molecular processes from nature can provide substantial benefits to numerous industries. The value of products derived from marine genetic resources alone is valued at $50 billion while a single enzyme isolated from a deep-sea hydrothermal vent used in ethanol production has an annual economic impact of $150 million. 

In contrast to other extractive processes, bioprospecting is driven by and dependent on biodiversity. The greater the diversity and novelty of an ecosystem, the greater the likelihood that new compounds exist within that community. Bioprospecting is also viewed as light extraction, compounds only need to be identified once–actual production happens synthetically in the lab–thus leaving ecosystems relatively undisturbed compared to more intensive industries.

Despite the promise and importance of bioprospecting, there is generally a relatively poor understanding of what the process of discovery entails. How do researchers go from sponges on the seafloor to new antiviral treatments? 

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