Top view of engineers on a platform doing deep-sea mining
Deep-sea mining, environmentalists argue, could cause irreversible damage, in the absence of convincing evidence it is safe

In the wake of a landmark treaty this year to protect the world’s oceans, countries and financiers are making a renewed effort to protect vulnerable parts of the deep seas.

The UN High Seas Treaty, for the conservation of oceans, was finally adopted in June, after years of delay. The treaty covers the two-thirds of the world’s waters that are not within national jurisdictions.

There are more than a dozen international organisations that regulate the oceans, but none has comprehensive oversight of the deep seas far from countries’ coastal waters. These waters have been considered ‘global commons’, but the lack of regulation has left them vulnerable to exploitation. Environmentalists say the treaty is a big step towards protecting biodiversity by controlling human activity in unregulated areas.

“It is a major accomplishment that the treaty is completed — it is clearly a win,” says Liz Karan, director of ocean governance at the Pew Charitable Trusts, a non-profit that campaigns on conservation.

There are 83 signatories to the agreement, including the EU and countries from Australia to the US. “This historic high seas treaty creates a co-ordinated approach to establishing marine protected areas on the high seas, a critical step to conserving ocean biodiversity,” said US secretary of state Antony Blinken in September.

But countries still need to ratify the treaty to be bound by it. “It really is just the start,” Karan explains, adding that the next UN ocean conference — in Nice, France, in June 2025 — is a good deadline for ratification.

Not everything has been smooth sailing in ocean governance, though.

In March, Michael Lodge, secretary-general of the UN-affiliated International Seabed Authority (ISA), came under fire for allegedly steering countries to support certain deep-sea mining projects. The ISA regulates deep-sea mining in international waters. Environmentalists have argued that this activity could cause irreversible damage, in the absence of convincing evidence that it is safe. Companies have yet to seriously start digging underwater, although some countries have an eye on the tax revenues the industry could provide.

In a March letter to the ISA, Germany said it was “seriously concerned” with the authority’s approach. Lodge responded, saying the allegations about the ISA’s position on deep-sea mining were “untrue and I reject such a baseless allegation”. In August, the ISA’s conference closed without resolving deep-sea mining, “due to different positions among delegations”.

The UK government has said it supports a moratorium on licences for mining the seabed until there is better evidence about how damaging the work might be. It joined Germany and other countries that have backed a pause in deep-sea mining, to study its environmental consequences.

However, commercialising the oceans has consequences than the solely environmental, says Yoshitaka Ota, director of the Ocean Nexus project at the University of Washington. He has been studying ocean governance and how communities in small island nations or coastal areas are affected by global warming. Ocean Nexus is a collaboration of researchers and institutions that aims to advance social justice through ocean governance.

It says the societal consequences of global warming are not as obvious in the ocean as they are on land. For example, hotter temperatures push fish into deeper waters, where they are harder for small-scale fishermen to reach.

Governance discussions should pay close attention to the needs of communities, notably in developing nations, where livelihoods depend on the oceans, Ota says. “Achieving both ocean justice and equity requires dismantling systemic inequity through ocean governance,” he argues.

While governments are working on the UN treaty, financial institutions are now developing fundraising tools to protect the oceans.

In September, the International Capital Markets Association published standards for issuing “blue bonds”, which are modelled on green-labelled debt. As part of its blue-bond standards, the ICMA cited research from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that oceans absorb about 31 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions released.

The standards did not include “non-renewable extractive industries”, so deep-sea mining, dredging and offshore oil and gas work is not eligible for blue-bond status, according to Nordea Asset Management. A record total of blue bonds has been issued by companies and countries this year, Nordea says.

In August, the US International Development Finance Corporation supported $500mn of insurance for Gabon’s ocean territory, in a deal that helps lower the interest rate on the African nation’s debt. In return, Gabon has promised to spend at least $125mn on sustainable fisheries and marine management. Gabon’s ocean territory is home to the world’s largest population of leatherback turtles, and an important seasonal breeding ground for whales, dolphins and sharks.

“The Gabon blue bond will generate an expected $163mn in financing for new marine conservation efforts over the next 15 years,” DFC chief executive Scott Nathan says.

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