1. Background: The seabed is the lowest layer of the ocean. There are two types of living organisms: benthic and pelagic. Benthic organisms are those living on the ocean floor, such as lobsters and crabs. The latter, like zooplankton, spend their time in the water column or floating on the surface. This category includes whales, squid, fish, etc. In addition to marine biodiversity, the seabed contains precious metals such as gold, silver, copper, cobalt and other rare earth elements. Sulfide deposits (massive sulfides on the seabed) can contain concentrations of minerals and resources up to 10 times greater than those found on land.

Awareness of the riches to be found on the seabed has led to a rush to deep-sea mining. Deep-sea mining is a method of mineral recovery that generally takes place at depths of between 4,500 and 12,000 feet around areas with metallic nodules, as well as areas with high levels of geothermal activity. These activities are organized and controlled by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an autonomous intergovernmental body founded under the aegis of the United Nations.

2. History: The existence of mineral deposits in the depths of the ocean has been known since the 1860s, but it wasn't until the 1960s that particular attention was paid to these resources. It all started with the publication of a book by American geologist John L. Mero entitled The Mineral Resources of the Sea. The book's success led Maltese ambassador Arvid Pardo to propose to the UN that seabed resources be considered the "common heritage of mankind". He also called for a system of international regulations to prevent the most technologically advanced countries from colonizing the seabed and monopolizing these resources to the detriment of developing countries.

Following this advice, in 1970 the UN adopted a Declaration of Principles Governing the Seabed and the Ocean Floor and the Subsoil Thereof Beyond the Limits of National Jurisdiction, which affirmed that the seabed should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. It thus declared that the mineral resources of the seabed were "the common heritage of mankind", to be developed in the interests of mankind within the framework of an international mechanism to be set up for this purpose.

3. The birth of interest in the seabed: In the past, due to relatively easy access to minerals on land, seabed mining did not arouse much interest. Today, however, the trend is reversing. Technological advances and the depletion of terrestrial resources are prompting companies and the private sector to turn their attention to seabed mining.

I. The legal framework for seabed mining

Issues relating to the management and exploitation of deep-sea mining resources fall within the remit of the IAMF, which is responsible for issuing exploration permits (A) and adopting a mining code specific to deep-sea mining (B).

A. Conditions for granting an exploration permit

Seabed mining is governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. All the members of this convention are members of the IAMF (168 members). Under this convention, the exploration and exploitation of minerals on the high seas can only take place within the framework of a contract drawn up between the IAMF and public and private mining companies. The latter must also be sponsored by a state party and meet certain criteria in terms of technological and financial capacity.

In addition, resources derived from mining must be used for the "benefit of all mankind". This is generally done in the form of royalties paid to the authority, with the emphasis on developing countries that possess neither the technological capacity nor the capital to undertake seabed mining activities. To date, it has granted some 28 exploration permits in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans, covering a seabed area of over 1.3 million km2. These permits have been granted to the States Parties and the companies they sponsor. Mining has not yet begun. In fact, the IAMF wishes to introduce a mining code to provide a framework.

B. Drawing up a mining code

For almost 10 years, the IAMF has been working on a mining code. This will consider technological, financial and environmental issues. The main concern is to reconcile the benefits of exploitation with the protection of the marine environment. Indeed, it's common knowledge that over the long term, seabed mining will have irreversible consequences on the environment, with the destruction of living organisms, the disappearance of habitat and the formation of sedimentary plumes. There will also be damage caused by malfunctioning upwelling and transport mechanisms, hydraulic leaks and noise and light pollution.

States and industrialists argue that this exploitation is necessary to electrify the car fleet and make a success of the ecological transition, contrary to scientists and researchers. Indeed, several scientific studies estimate that mining will turn part of the ocean into a desert. A recent study published on July 14, 2023, in the journal Current Biology, shows that marine creatures are abandoning areas subject to the passage of excavating machines used to extract minerals (copper, cobalt, manganese, nickel...) from the depths. In view of all this, they believe that the fight against climate change must not be waged at the expense of the living world and are convinced that launching seabed mining would be a definite disaster for the environment, as it would endanger living species already weakened by plastic pollution.

The IAMF, aware of the potential effects of mining on the environment, is taking steps to ensure that contracting parties collect basic data, in particular on the composition and distribution of species living on the seabed and conduct scientific research to better understand the long-term effects of seabed mining.

II. Disagreements over seabed mining authorization

IAMF member states disagree on the issue of seabed mining. France was quick to express its opposition to seabed mining (A). The latest IAMF meeting was not unanimous either (B).

A. France's position on mining

France has repeatedly expressed its disagreement with the idea of deep-sea mining. Indeed, President Emmanuel Macron pledged to ban deep-sea mining in June 2022 at the United Nations Oceans Conference in Lisbon, and again in November 2022 at the opening of COP 27 in Egypt. In January 2023, the French National Assembly voted in favor of a resolution calling on the government to make an international commitment to a moratorium on deep-sea mining.

The resolution called for a ban on "deep-sea mining on the high seas until independent scientific groups have demonstrated with certainty that this extractive activity can be undertaken without degrading marine ecosystems and without loss of marine biodiversity". Pending such demonstration, it called on France to block the adoption of any regulations for seabed mining by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and any granting of mining licenses.

B. Disagreement between States on exploitation

The IAMF General Assembly (GA) on submarine mining was held from July 10 to 29, 2023 in Kingston, Jamaica. As a reminder, due to the delay in drafting a mining code, Naru, an island state in the heart of the Pacific, triggered the "two-year" clause in 2021, obliging the IAMF to provide a mining code by July 2023 at the latest. The deadline passed without the board of the institution, which brings together 36 countries elected by the 168 members, having managed to draft it. At the AGM, some countries called for a "precautionary pause", while others were eager to exploit deep-sea mining resources.

Indeed, 21 states are in favor of the moratorium (e.g. Fiji, Palos, France, Germany, Switzerland, Canada...). They believe that seabed mining runs counter to the implementation of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, the 30% target for marine protection by 2030, as well as the Treaty on the Conservation and Utilization of High Seas Marine Biodiversity (BBNJ), adopted by the UN in June 2023. The moratorium is supported by several producers, fishermen, suppliers and retailers, who have declared themselves "deeply concerned about the potential impacts of deep-sea mining on human health and the environment".

Other countries, such as Naru, Mexico, China, the UK and Norway, are pressing for authorization for seabed mining. At the end of the meeting, the states agreed not to issue any mining permits until the mining code had been finalized. To this end, they were ordered to draw up a roadmap for its adoption by 2025. As for the formal debate on a possible precautionary pause on exploitation, this will be on the agenda of the next AGM scheduled for summer 2024.