The 24th Session of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) took place from 5-9 March (the Council), and 16-26 July 2018 Council and Assembly) in Kingston, Jamaica. The main topics for Council (the 36 members elected by the Assembly representing different interest groups), plus observers were the draft regulations on deep seabed mining, models for a financial payment system, issues of non-compliance of contractors, and possible operationalization of the Enterprise. The Assembly, the body representing all UNCLOS States Parties, considered a strategic plan for 2019-2023, the Secretary General’s Annual Report, and the proposed budget. Observers present included IUCN (Kristina Gjerde), Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) (Matt Gianni and Duncan Currie), Deep Ocean Science Initiative (DOSI) (Lisa Levin, Adrian Glover, Diva Amon, Anna Mataxas) and the Pew Charitable Trust (Conn Nugent, Glynnis (Winnie) Roberts, and Megan Mjungwiwattanaporn). Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) was present and made daily reports, as well as an excellent summary report.
The Council made progress reviewing the draft exploitation regulations, but much work remains to be done, particularly on the environmental aspects including transparency, and also on key issues such as the payment mechanism. Key questions include:
- What percentage of royalty and/or profit sharing would be appropriate, given that the deep seabed Area resources are the common heritage of mankind and therefore belong to humankind?
- And what implications does that have for conserving the deep sea environment?
- How can the regulations help to ensure effective protection of the marine environment from harmful effects if so little is known about the potential impacts of deep sea mining itself?
- Whether and how to bring the Enterprise –the public mining arm of the ISA — into being before the mining regulations are complete?
The 24th session was intense, with numerous interventions from IUCN, DSCC, Pew and DOSI, along with scheduled side events presented by civil society and contractors most mornings, lunchtime and evenings.
Regional environmental management plans are now regarded by all as an important component of mining regulations, but their development is in very early stages and require a far better understanding of the marine environment to provide an effective tool. So far, there is only one in place for polymetallic nodules in the Clarion Clipperton Zone, but there are two in development (one for the mid-Atlantic Ridge, for hydrothermal vents, and one for the so-called Triangle area in the northwest Pacific, for cobalt crusts).
In the second week, the Assembly adopted the Strategic Plan for 2019-2023, which sets forth the operational priorities for the ISA in achieving its many mandates, from administering seabed mining regulations, to protecting the marine environment, promoting the sharing of the results of scientific research, and supporting capacity building and technology transfer. The Strategic Plan was much improved from its original version, to include more provisions on environmental protection and transparency, following interventions from DSCC and IUCN. Over 50 NGOs, including High Seas Alliance members, joined together in a submission, parts of which were adopted.
The ISA discussions highlight the need for a robust global treaty that sets forth (i) high level rules, standards and recommended procedures and processes for ensuring transparency, accountability and inclusiveness of decision-making processes. (Presently, all critical parts of the ISA operations –the meetings of the Legal and Technical Commission –remain closed to outside observers); (ii) setting up systems of comprehensively protected MPAs that all States Parties have a duty to protect; (iii) agreeing international criteria for identifying areas that should be protected; (iv) ensuring full and effective prior consultation at the earliest stages of projects, as part of the obligation to pay due regard to other interests and users, including conservation, long-term scientific research sites and communications cables; and (v) providing a platform to coordinate multi-sectoral strategic environmental assessments and regional environmental management plans based on strategic environmental assessments to avoid conflicts of use, cumulative effects and ensure protection of significant areas and values. As the Council was unable to finish its review of the draft regulations, discussions will continue again in next year’s meeting, with written comments welcomed through 30 September of 2018.
Cover photo by High Seas Alliance