Deep sea mining

UK becomes latest government to back moratorium on deep sea mining

Yesterday, the UK government announced its support for measures designed to protect the world’s ocean and improve the conservation of marine biodiversity. 

Written by Oceanographic Staff
Photographs by Mike Bartick & Richard Barnden

Ahead of International Seabed Authority (ISA) negotiations starting today, and a month ahead of COP28, the UK government has announced its support for a moratorium on the granting of exploitation licences for deep sea mining projects – which involve the extraction of minerals such as precious metals, copper and cobalt – by the ISA.

This means the UK will not sponsor or support the issuing of any such licences until sufficient scientific evidence is available to assess the potential impact of deep sea mining activities on marine ecosystems and strong, enforceable environmental regulations, standards and guidelines have been developed and adopted by the ISA.

The move comes after scientists last month warned the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, that deep sea mining could have wide-ranging effects on marine life and the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide.

Around 20 countries, including Germany, Canada, France and Sweden, have backed the moratorium to date. Additionally, prominent carmakers like BMW and Volvo, as well as Samsung, a company that produces car batteries, have promised not to use deep-sea minerals in their products.

Following the government’s announcement, Thérèse Coffey, the environment secretary, said: “We will use our scientific expertise to fully understand the impact of deep sea mining on precious ecosystems; and in the meantime, we will not support or sponsor any exploitation licences. This work will go alongside our wider efforts to conserve and enhance precious marine habitats around the world.”

To support this, a new UK-based environmental science expert network on deep sea mining will be launched to gather scientific data and increase the effective use of the UK’s world-class research through cross-disciplinary learning. This will build on the independent evidence review on deep sea mining carried out by independent experts following a government commission in 2022. The network will bring together the UK’s environmental science expertise to help fill the current evidence gaps on the environmental impact of deep sea mining and share internationally.

Clare Brook, CEO of Blue Marine Foundation, commented: “Deep-sea mining threatens some of the rarest and most vulnerable ecosystems on Earth. Blue Marine is therefore delighted to see the UK supporting a moratorium on deep-sea mining, along with other leading economies such as Germany, France and Sweden.”

“There are cheaper, cleaner and more secure ways of producing minerals as the world transitions to net zero without causing the catastrophic and permanent destruction of fragile ocean life. Blue Marine welcomes the Government’s proposal to convene a UK scientific expert group on deep-sea mining, which would underline the UK’s position as a leading voice in ocean conservation,” she added.

While companies that back the practice of deep sea mining argue that harvesting minerals from the seabed is less environmentally damaging than extracting them from land, scientists and environmentalists say that the practice could affect marine habitats and marine life through noise, light, spills of fuels and chemicals, and dust storms. Furthermore, only 1% of the world’s deep seas have been explored. As the consequences of deep sea mining have not been firmly explored, the European Academies Science Advisory Council in June warned that it could have “dire consequences” for marine ecosystems.

The UK currently has two exploration licences to extract metals from the Pacific Ocean floor. Only exploration or research contracts have been allowed so far. In total, only 14 countries sponsor these contracts at the moment, including China, Russia, South Korea, Brazil, Japan, Jamaica, and Belgium.


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Written by Oceanographic Staff
Photographs by Mike Bartick & Richard Barnden

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