An Investigation into the Ethical Implications of Deep Sea Mining

While many still associate deep sea mining with science fiction, recent developments have proven that ocean mining could be a very profitable reality in just a few years. Recently, scientists have explored remote parts of the ocean in much greater detail. Recent developments in materials science and underwater robotics have revolutionized human understanding of the oceans’ biological and geological processes. While scientists are just beginning to thoroughly investigate the intricacies of deep sea ecosystems, these modern technological developments, coupled with rising prices of precious metals, have led numerous corporations to develop seafloor mining technology that could be implemented as early as 2016 [1]. As the ability of the scientific community to explore and learn about remote deep sea environments increases, the ability to exploit such reserves also increases. In order to prevent the systematic destruction of unknown ocean environments, a precautionary approach must be taken that protects newly discovered hydrothermal ecosystems from mining and balances the economic rights of developing nations with the right of future generations to a thriving ocean ecosystem.

Modern day ocean mining, which is being pioneered by the Canadian company Nautilus Minerals, has largely been shaped by the development of political frameworks for the modern ocean that were established in the latter half of the twentieth century [2]. In the midst of growing interest in the ocean, the United Nations in 1982, seeking to find a balance between the rights of coastal states to the sea and the right of all nations to the open ocean, adopted the UN Convention on the Law of Seas (UNCLOS) [3]. Additionally, the UNCLOS established the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in order to regulate the research and commercialization of seafloor activities [3]. According to UNCLOS, each coastal nation is appropriated a 12 mile territorial sea, which extends out from the coast. In addition to territorial seas, coastal nations have access to Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), which extend 200 miles out from the coast [3]. Within an EEZ, a coastal nation has the sovereign right to exploit, explore, manage and conserve any and all resources within the area [3]. As a result of economic and political benefits of EEZs, most deep sea mining will occur near economic point of interest in these unique groups. Recent studies have shown that nearly 40% of seafloor massive sulfide (SMS) deposits, which are the most profitable for ocean mining, occur within EEZs [4]. If the International Seabed Authority expects to regulate DSM, they must develop an effective legal framework for monitoring and regulating existing operations without infringing upon the economic right of coastal nations to develop their economies.

The governing bodies of the ocean have successfully set a precedent for responsibly harnessing ocean resources, but regulations are evolving slower than DSM technology, which could have troubling economic and environmental impacts. Coastal mineral reserves present enticing opportunities for smaller island nations, such as Papua New Guinea and Tonga, to stimulate foreign investment and industrialize their economies. The unique economic and legal status of an EEZ allows smaller countries to grant business permits to foreign mining companies for a share of the profits [3]. While foreign investment can provide lasting benefits, unregulated development of coastal mineral reserves could lead to an unfair distribution of resources between foreign investors and local communities. According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Code of Ethics, “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties” [5]. It would be unethical to ignore the long-term welfare of the coastal nation by failing to provide a sustainable economic alternative once the DSM activities conclude. As a part of its plan for sustainable mining of the Solwara 1 project, Nautilus has encouraged investment in their first project from the PNG government. As of May 2014, PNG has invested $120M, 15% of the projected budget, in exchange for 15% interest on the project [2]. While this is a step in the right direction, it is difficult to predict how smaller island nations will realistically invest comparable amounts of money into offshore projects when the GDP of most nations in Oceania does not exceed one billion dollars [6]. Current models fail to provide meaningful education and training for local communities. The resulting “partnerships” between island nations and mining companies would be little more than temporary boosts in states’ GDPs that would disappear once the mining becomes unprofitable. The solution, however, should not necessarily take the form of increased regulation. International oversight should be careful not to infringe upon the right of coastal nations to lease their EEZ’s as they see fit. Sustainable development programs and excessive regulations of international agencies should not disqualify profitable business ventures by forcing prospective companies to jump through too many figurative economic hoops.

In order to provide for the equitable distribution of profit from DSM activities, the ISA should oversee the establishment of an organization for ocean mineral exporting countries that resembles the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The organization would function as a third party that monitors existing DSM sites, ensuring that all practices are within the terms of agreement between the coastal nation and the corporation. In negotiations between coastal nations and prospective companies, coastal nations would be provided the most recent, unbiased data about the reality of DSM operations and their effects on states. The organization should accumulate data and rapidly relay that information to nations in the midst of contract negotiations for future operations. This information should allow coastal nations to look past upfront lump sum payments and make educated decisions about how they will use their EEZs to provide lasting economic change. Ideally, this would more closely align the demands of island nations with that of sustainable development and would allow for prospective DSM companies to compete healthily with prospective producers in a way that distributes resources more fairly. By making companies cater to mineral-rich nations, this model will ensure that long-term economic development is incorporated into project design at an early stage rather than being tacked on ineffectively at the last minute. With no currently active DSM sites in the world, it is hard to predict exactly how DSM operations will affect local economies. An informed approach to mediating EEZ contracts will encourage sustainable economic development without smothering economic opportunities.

Although the impact of DSM operations on coastal nation economies and local communities are important factors to consider, the environmental impacts are the largest obstacles to the success of DSM activities. The eighth fundamental cannon of the ASME code of ethics states, “Engineers shall consider environmental impact in the performance of their professional duties” [5]. As Solwara 1 is the first project of its kind, it is difficult for scientists to predict how the emerging technology will affect complex ocean ecosystems. Nautilus Minerals plans to mine seafloor massive sulfide (SMS) deposits, which could contain high grade zinc, copper, silver, gold, lead, and rare earth metals that are formed from hydrothermal vents [7]. Hydrothermal vents spew superheated, mineral-rich gas into the ocean water and allow for incredibly diverse and unique ecosystems [4]. No two vents are alike and many environmentalists fear the destruction of vibrant communities of unique lifeforms before they can be studied for potential benefits to society. Additionally, scientists are worried that sediments released into the water column could prevent sunlight from passing through the ocean water, thereby disrupting the energy structure of interconnected maritime ecosystems [8]. These severe environmental effects must be kept in mind as Nautilus and other companies begin to recognize the impact of deep sea mining.

Engineers have a professional responsibility and moral compulsion to ensure the preservation of unique ocean environments for generations to come. According to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, there may be upwards of 1,000 hydrothermal vents, but scientific understanding of even the most well-known vents is incomplete at best [4]. Although international waters are currently not viable mining zones because of legal regulations, they could be opened in the future. In order to actively ensure the protection of hydrothermal vents in international waters, newly discovered hydrothermal vent sites in the open ocean should be set aside as nature reserves for scientific research. By establishing a vast network of reserve areas, much of the biodiversity of natural vent ecosystems will be preserved. Early DSM mining sites should be restricted to inactive hydrothermal vent systems. This will offer scientists the most time to research active systems while DSM companies extract ore from inactive sites, which will have a much smaller effect on biodiversity. Research must be devoted to methods of effectively restoring deep sea habitats to see if original species can be reintroduced to hydrothermal sites once mining operations have concluded [8]. In order to monitor the environmental effects of DSM, scientists must first establish assessments for the health of a community by quantifying biodiversity, bio-geographic distribution, and genetics for thriving hydrothermal ecosystems [8]. These data benchmarks will allow scientists to monitor the levels of struggling populations in addition to assessing how quickly populations can recover from mining operations. A precautionary approach that closely monitors future DSM sires for irreparable damage will help preserve coastal ecosystems for future generations. With numerous coastal nations and large mining corporations eagerly looking to see if Nautilus minerals will successfully turn a profit, the response of the engineering community to such a polarizing frontier industry will set a precedent for how engineers handle the uncertainty of future controversial industries. Although there is significant momentum and financial backing in the DSM industry, mining should only proceed as long as there are no permanent damages to any segments of the marine ecosystem. If any part of the DSM process is conclusively linked to permanent environmental damage, all deep sea mining activities should come to an immediate halt until an alternative means of harvesting mineral resources is proposed. While this is a harsh stance on a controversial issue, the opinion is substantiated when considering the broader role of engineers in society. As mentioned earlier, the 7th canon in the ASME code of ethics identifies a consideration for the well-being of the environment as a fundamental concern for engineers. Any engineering practice that knowingly destroys vibrant and unique ecosystems deviates from the purpose of engineering and erodes the moral underpinnings of the profession. A commitment to just environmental and economical practice will have positive repercussions on how engineers handle future projects. From the economic development of the moon, Antarctica, and space, the way that ocean mining is handled could set a powerful precedent for how humans balance the tools of scientific discovery with industries that could potentially cause irreparable damage to remote environments.

By Aaron VanLandingham, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California

Works Cited

[1] Brill, R. (2014, Jun 07). Nations seek right to hoist minerals from ocean floor. Honolulu Star – Advertiser. Retrieved from

[2] Nautilus Fact Sheet [Online]. Available FTP: Retrieved from

[3] H. Tuerk, “The Development of the Modern Law of the Sea,” in Reflections on the Contemporary Law of the Sea, Leiden, Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2012.

[4] Drew, L.W. (2009). The promise and peril of seafloor mining. Oceanus, 47(3), 8-14. Retrieved from

[5] (2014). Code of Ethics [Online]. Available FTP: Retrieved from

[6] World Bank. (2014) GDP per capita (current US$) [Online]. Available FTP:

[7] Rosenbaum, H., and Lowrey, N. (2013). Mining the deap sea. Arena Magazine, (124), 11-13. Retrieved from

[8] Van Dover, C.L. (2011). Mining seafloor massive sulphides and biodiversity: What is the risk? ICES Journal of Marine Science, 68(2), 341-348. doi: