The biggest deep-sea mining operation so far was a cold-war ruse. In 1974, the US Central Intelligence Agency launched an elaborate operation to recover a Soviet submarine northwest of Hawaii, under the cover of a commercial venture to mine manganese nodules located on the sea floor. The spooks got a piece of the submarine but left any valuable minerals in the area for future prospectors.
Despite mounting interest in such sea-bed resources, little has happened since. But the world’s first commercial mining venture in the deep sea seems only a matter of time. Estimates vary, but optimists claim there could be huge untapped piles of precious metals, including gold and silver, down there. Several countries, including Papua New Guinea, Japan and South Korea, are pursuing sea-bed mining in their territorial waters, and interest in international waters is on the rise, as well. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), which was established in 1994 under the United Nations’ Law of the Sea and regulates activities that occur outside national jurisdictions, has already issued 28 exploration permits to entities in 20 countries.
At a meeting next week, the ISA’s council will once again discuss a possible process to permit, monitor and end mining operations, which will eventually cover more than half of the ocean floor — collectively known as ‘the Area’. The ISA began deliberations in earnest in January 2017, and observers think that the regulations could be formalized as early as 2020. Many of the details must still be ironed out.
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