Delegates struggle to develop Regional Environmental Management Plans during a global pandemic

Since the pandemic brought travel to a halt, the International Seabed Authority has been working to meet contractor deadlines and make progress on a variety of issues revolving around finalizing the mining code, facilitating workshops, and engaging stakeholders and experts through remote meetings. These efforts include workshops on the development of Regional Environmental Management Plans (REMPs) for the Northwest Pacific and the Northern Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Though some stakeholders were satisfied with the efforts to move workshops online, many were left frustrated by a process that felt rushed, less transparent, and less inclusive of the breadth of stakeholders represented by the deep-sea mining community.

Regional Environmental Management Plans are one of the foundational policy instruments that determine how contractors act and interact within a geographic region. They provide guidance for not just individual lease blocks, but for how the whole of an area, including multiple lease blocks by multiple contractors, as well as areas of particular environmental interest and set asides will be managed. The process of negotiating a REMP is long and detail-oriented and includes the input of numerous stakeholder groups and expert advisors. So far, only a single REMP, for the Clarion-Clipperton  Fracture Zone, has been approved by the International Seabed Authority. 

The Northwest Pacific is unique among current management regimes as it includes two different ore deposits–polymetallic nodules and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts–increasing the complexity of managing the region. These deposits occur in a patchwork of crusts and nodules, adding further complications. There is far more topographic diversity compared with, for example, the vast abyssal plains for the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone–seamounts and guyots rise from the seafloor. Mining contractors in the Northwest Pacific management area will have to account for potential environmental harms that may be compounded by multiple mining techniques applied to different ecosystems. 

Five contractors currently hold lease blocks in the Northwest Pacific management region, including China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association, Japan Oil, Gas, and Metals National Corporation, the Republic of Korea, and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation, all of whom have cobalt-rich ferromanganese crust leases. Beijing Pioneer Hi-Tech Development Corporation has the sole lease for polymetallic nodules. All current contractors are state-owned entities rather than purely commercial enterprises. 

Adding yet another layer to the geographic and geopolitical context of the region, exploration leases are sandwiched between several exclusive economic zones, including the United States, Japan, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands. The western extent of several cobalt-rich ferromanganese crust least blocks are adjacent to the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, a protected area within the US EEZ which is currently under consideration for National Sanctuary designation, a process that could result in expansion and increased protections (Disclosure: Thaler is involved in the sanctuary designation proposal for the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument). Though they participated in the REMP workshop, representatives from US agencies were not available to comment.

To the north, a portion of Beijing Pioneer Hi-Tech Development Corporation’s polymetallic nodule lease block abuts Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone associated with Minami-Tori-shima island, Japan’s easternmost territory. 

The ISA Workshop on the Regional Environmental Management Plan for the Area of the Northwest Pacific took place remotely in late October and early November of 2020. It built upon an earlier workshop held in 2018, which did not yet include lease blocks for polymetallic nodules, with a goal of producing the skeleton of a Regional Environmental Management Plan for the area. 

With a shortened daily schedule stretched out over a relatively longer period of time, it seemed ideally positioned to be more inclusive of a broad range of stakeholders than previous, in-person, workshops had been. Unfortunately, some stakeholders felt that the selection process was opaque and that the full range of available expertise was not reflected among the final set of participants. 

For many stakeholders, the process was a struggle. Imbalances in time zones, the inability to form informal breakout groups, and lack of technical capacity were all mentioned as hurdles that hindered progress or made participation difficult. Most challenging for many participants was an expectation by many employers that participation was supplemental to regular work responsibilities, resulting in exceptionally long days, especially for stakeholders for whom the REMP workshop happened late in the evening or early in the morning. Though it is not the ISA’s responsibility to set those expectations with participants’ employers, it is a phenomenon that is rarely an issue with in-person meetings. 

Data accessibility and lack of communication caused additional challenges for several participants. For a variety of reasons, not all the contractor provided data was accessible for all participants. During the process, it was often unclear if or how comments were being incorporated into draft documents. Some participants noted that it felt as though their feedback wasn’t taken into consideration as new drafts of the report were produced. 

“The rushed virtual REMP planning process suffers from a lack of data transparency and availability and from being hamstrung to design areas to protect after contracting areas for exploration.” said Dr. Beth Orcutt, who participated in the Northwest Pacific REMP workshop. 

While the first REMP workshop had a rocky start, these challenges aren’t unique to the ISA and most institutions and organizations have struggled to transition their in-person meetings to a remote format. A second REMP workshop, this time focused more narrowly on seafloor massive sulphides on the Northern Mid-Atlantic Ridge, would provide an opportunity for the ISA to apply lessons learned to the next meeting. 

The Northern Mid-Atlantic Ridge stretches from Iceland south to the equator through the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (the entirety of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge continues south from the equator and comprises the largest contiguous geologic structure on the planet). The formation is dotted with hydrothermal vents–cracks in the skin of the Earth from which superheated fluid emerges, depositing ore and providing the foundation for chemoautotrophic ecosystems. These ore deposits–called seafloor massive sulphides by industry stakeholders and deep-sea hydrothermal vents by scientists and environmentalists–are rich in a variety of rare and precious metals as well as endemic species found nowhere else in the ocean. 

Only three contractors currently have exploration leases on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the Republic of Poland, the Russian Federation, and the Institut français de recherche pour l’exploitation de la mer (IFREMER). These lease blocks stretch from just south of Portugal’s exclusive economic zone surrounding the Azores to just north of the 10th parallel. The Republic of Poland’s lease block is directly adjacent to Portugal’s EEZ and the Marine Park of the Azores, a protected area that includes four hydrothermal vent ecosystems within the EEZ. 

Participants reported many of the same issues that raised concerns during the Northern Pacific REMP workshop: documents were not provided in a timely and accessible manner; it was not clear how and if stakeholder comments were being incorporated into drafts; the selection process for participants was opaque; and many portions felt rushed. 

“I am concerned about the conduct of workshops organized or co-organized by the Secretariat.” said Predeep Singh of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies. “To take the example of the workshop on a REMP for the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the ISA website states that the results of participant selection would be announced by the end of August. However, this was only announced just a few days ago, without any reasons given on the website for the delay. There are also rumors that certain highly qualified participants were not selected due to their strong views on the matter that appear to diverge from the Secretariat’s position. Since the said workshop is co-funded by the European Commission, it is worth ascertaining whether the selection process conforms with the norms of the European Commission. Finally, given that the pandemic has forced the workshop to be held online, it is questionable as to why the proceedings of the workshop cannot be opened and live-streamed for the public to observe and witness. This is essential for transparency and openness. It is, of course, understandable for the number of active participants to be limited (i.e. to those selected by the ISA), but there is no reason why other interested parties cannot join to watch and listen-in on proceedings without having the possibility to intervene.”

Ultimately, these REMP workshops are only one component of an ongoing process to develop comprehensive Regional Environmental Management Plans that account for the needs and concerns of a variety of stakeholders. Though the workshop reports are not yet available to outside observers, there will continue to be opportunities for stakeholder input. As the pressures placed on institutions as a result of the global pandemic slowly begin to ease, organizations like the ISA will be better positioned to host more inclusive meetings that meet the needs of a diversity of deep-sea stakeholders. 

Featured Image: Ferromanganese Crusts near the Northwest Pacific management area. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas.

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