Sandor Mulsow: ‘The ISA is not fit to regulate any activity in the oceans’

The International Seabed Authority is promoting exploitation rather than protection of the deep, says its former head of environment and minerals

Dumbo octopus (Cirrothauma murrayi)

Deep-sea mining would put the habitats of little-understood species at risk (Image: Okeanos Explorer/NOAA/CC BY 2.0)

The deep-sea floor is peppered with unknown quantities of minerals, formed over millions of years. Iron and manganese are the most abundant, but there are also deposits of copper, nickel, cobalt, zinc and a variety of rare earths. These minerals have long been mined on land and are essential to everyday objects including smartphones, televisions and cars.

They are also crucial ingredients in technology that delivers renewable energy, such as solar panels and batteries. Some argue that the world cannot decarbonise unless we begin to mine these minerals from the deep sea floor. They say terrestrial mining causes far worse ecological impacts and greenhouse gas emissions.

But increasing numbers of scientists and civil society groups are calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. They argue the global ocean is already severely stressed by climate change, pollution and overfishing, and that mining regulations are being developed without a full understanding of the risks. Their stance has recently been supported by prominent companies including BMW, Volvo, Samsung and Google.

Dr Sandor Mulsow stands firmly on this side of the debate. A Chilean professor of marine geology, from 2013 to 2019 he was head of the Office of Environmental Management and Mineral Resources at the International Seabed Authority (ISA).

The ISA is the UN-appointed body charged with developing rules that will govern eventual mining. It is due to resume negotiations around the issue at its headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica, from 6–15 December, although finalising regulations, known as the Mining Code, will no longer be on the agenda because of Covid-19 travel restrictions.

Mulsow, who has more than 30 scientific articles and hundreds of legal reports on the ocean to his name, is currently based at the Universidad Austral in Chile’s southern coastal city of Valdivia.

He spoke to China Dialogue Ocean via video call.


China Dialogue Ocean: What is the tragedy you say is about to happen?

Sandor Mulsow: There is currently a movement that is looking to start mining the seabed for minerals. And when that happens, there is no going back. It’s a lot cheaper to mine the seabed, which is very attractive to industries, and it would be done in very remote places, where nobody can complain.


What is the problem with mining in the deep ocean?

We only have one planet. And we have to protect it. We have always been told that the oceans are gigantic. Seventy per cent of the surface of our planet is ocean and we think it can hold everything. That’s why every country in the world dumps everything into the sea, so that it will supposedly be lost. But when I do the analysis, in terms of volume, of all the water in the ocean, it becomes a tiny little ball that is 1,000 times smaller than the Earth. In other words, it is a tremendously fragile environment, but we are not protecting it as we need to.

Deep seabed mining machines manufactured by Nautilus Minerals (Image: Nautilus Minerals)
Machines designed for mining the deep-sea floor (Image © Nautilus Minerals)

Who is in charge of ensuring the protection of the oceans?

The International Seabed Authority is the one that should. However, in practice it does not do so. There are other interests behind it. At the moment, the ISA has two mandates that are counterproductive. One, which is in articles 136 to 145 [of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea], has to do with the common heritage of mankind, with the search for equality of all countries, the promotion of research, and very positive things. But, on the other hand, it has articles 150, 151 and 152 that focus on production, exploitation and profits.


So, their mandate is positive…

It would be positive if we had knowledge available. We know very little about the seabed. We don’t have enough data and research to understand what is going on at the bottom of the oceans. During my five years as director of ISA’s environmental management and mineral resources office, I saw a lot of irregularities.


What would be an example of an irregularity?

The Clarion-Clipperton Zone, which is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Hawaii, is one of the most heavily explored areas. It is estimated to be almost twice the size of Mexico and there are 17 exploration contracts of 75,000 square kilometres each. There are contractors who send 100 samples of what they find in their concession – which is nothing. It’s as if we were to go to the middle of Central Park in New York, which is 3.4 square kilometres, and do a test with a 10-centimetre tube to determine how many worms there are in the whole place. Is it possible to measure biodiversity like that? How are we going to measure the real impact we are generating? You can’t with that data. But with just that data, they want to promote underwater mining.

An interactive map showing what could be mined and where
Toggle zones on / off


How do you see the work of ISA?

There is a huge bias in favour of new contractors. Very little research work has been done, but they still want to do mining. As I just said, they are accepting very bad evidence. ISA is responding to pro-seabed mining interests.


In June this year, the small island state of
Nauru invoked a rule which compels the ISA to allow mining to proceed within two years, under whatever regulations are in place at that time. How significant is the ‘Nauru trigger’?

In 2013, the then British prime minister David Cameron declared that underwater mining was going to be worth £40 billion [US$53 billion] to the UK economy over the next 30 years… So I was not surprised that Nauru, an island with a very nascent economy, but part of the Commonwealth, has made this request. Behind this strategic move is DeepGreen and The Metals Company [from Canada] who are promoting by all means the exploitation of undersea minerals.


It all feels unclear…

Here’s another example. Jamaica, also in the Commonwealth, has just won an exploration contract. When I looked at who was behind it, there were companies that were in England that were only worth a dollar. And those companies were justifying exploration costs over the next five years to the tune of two million dollars. How is that possible? How does the secretary-general of ISA, the Englishman Michael Lodge, not do a technical analysis of this situation or ask where that money is coming from? A bit odd, isn’t it?


What do you want to say?

Watch the DeepGreen videos. We are on a direct path to the destruction of the oceans. If nothing is done, on 25 June 2023, Nauru starts to explode. And with that, all countries. There would be tremendous chaos and unprecedented destruction because no one would control this activity.

The way ISA is working at the moment, it is not fit to regulate any activity in the oceans.


What about the ISA?

If it continues with the same attitude it has had so far, it will give free rein to underwater mining. There is a meeting in December, but nothing is done at these meetings. They only validate technically and legally everything that the secretariat presents to them, without any objections. Most of the members keep quiet and no one speaks up. The ISA will end up validating the start of exploitation.


What is the way out?

In the short term, what we need is for countries to sign a moratorium that does not allow exploitation until we have scientific certainty about what we should do. It sounds simple, but if nobody is interested in what happens in the oceans, who is going to oppose it? There is a lot of money and interests at stake.

Reform is also needed at ISA to ensure that decision-making and regulatory processes are transparent, accountable, inclusive, effective and environmentally responsible. This can only happen when ISA is part of the United Nations. ISA is autonomous, it reports to no one.

There is an unclear game here that allows the ISA to do whatever it wants and nobody controls it. The balance between the legal and the scientific side has to be equal. At the moment it is purely lawyers who are making the decisions. There are officials who are industrial spies, who are more in favour of the companies than the common good. The way ISA is working at the moment, it is not fit to regulate any activity in the oceans.