The deep sea is one of Earth’s most precious ecosystems, with a vital role to play in the health of our planet, yet we are squandering it for an outdated drive towards boundless growth. This is the stark warning from Seas At Risk, together with 50 NGOs from across the globe, to the International Seabed Authority (ISA).

As 168 countries prepare to attend the ISA’s 24th annual session in Jamaica (2-24 July), NGOs are calling on governments to heed countless scientific warnings about the irreversible damage inflicted by deep-sea mining on marine ecosystems, as well as the harm it poses to global efforts towards a sustainable economy. The ISA is the UN body tasked with protecting and managing the deep seabed in international waters, designated as ‘common heritage of mankind’.

In their joint statement, the environmental NGOs question the need for deep-sea mining, pointing to the world’s commitment to sustainable consumption and production. ‘We need to learn to use minerals in a smart and efficient manner and reduce demand. Then we won’t need to dig up the deep sea to fuel a throwaway economy in which metals are turned to waste on a large scale, at the expense of the marine environment.’, says Ann Dom, Deputy Director of Seas At Risk.

The statement comes as the ISA moves rapidly towards commercial seabed exploitation. So far, the ISA has only issued exploration contracts; actual mining has not yet started in international waters. The draft exploitation regulation is due to be further negotiated during this year’s annual session, with the ISA hoping to adopt the ensuing agreement by 2020. This would then pave the way for deep-sea mining to begin despite the significant knowledge gaps that persist.

Environmental NGOs warn that continuing to open up new reserves for mining risks diverting attention and investment away from much-needed efforts to achieve sustainable consumption and production, practices to which the world is already committed under the Sustainable Development Goals. In view of their concerns about the shortage of environmental expertise in the ISA, as well as its lack of transparency, the NGOs are demanding a full and public process to assess the potential impact of deep-sea mining. In the meantime, they are calling on the ISA to cease granting contracts for deep-sea mining exploration and to refrain from issuing contracts for exploitation.