The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the International Seabed Authority - Contributions to Responsible Ocean Management

Ulrich Schwarz-Schampera

  (1)International Seabed Authority

The world oceans cover 361.90 million square kilometres, representing 70.9% of the Earth’s surface. While about half of the oceans are part of coastal countries and under national jurisdictions, a total of 181.63 million square kilometres does not belong to any country or entity; or better, belong to everyone. Similar to the better known Antarctic treaty which regulates legally the international status of Antarctica, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), adopted in 1982, regulates the international areas of the world oceans – called the ‘Area’ - in terms of navigational rights, territorial sea limits, economic jurisdiction, the legal status of resources on the seabed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, the passage of ships through narrow straits, the conservation and management of living marine resources, the protection of the marine environment, a marine research regime and binding procedures for settlement of disputes between States. The Convention is an unprecedented attempt by the international community to regulate all aspects of the resources of the sea and uses of the ocean as the common heritage of humankind. UNCLOS outlines the areas of national jurisdiction as a 12 nautical-mile territorial sea, an exclusive economic zone of up to 200 nautical miles and a continental shelf. The international seabed Area is defined as “the seabed and ocean floor and the subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.”

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is an autonomous international organization established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 1994 Agreement relating to the Implementation of Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1994 Agreement). ISA, which has its headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica, came into existence on 16 November 1994, upon the entry into force of UNCLOS. ISA is the organization through which States Parties to UNCLOS organize and control all mineral-resources-related activities in the Area for the benefit of humankind as a whole. In so doing, ISA has the mandate to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment from harmful effects that may arise from deep-seabed-related activities. ISA provides a critical platform for knowledge generation on the deep-sea, its resources and ecosystems. As of 1 May 2020, ISA has 168 Members, including 167 Member States and the European Union.

ISA has undertaken work to develop regulations for exploration and exploitation of mineral resources in the Area since its existence in November 1994, through expert workshops and studies and discussion papers. The draft regulations are considered by organs of the ISA, namely the Legal and Technical Commission and the Council, and finally decided by the Assembly. Open stakeholder consultations are held throughout the process. ISA has issued regulations on prospecting and exploration for marine resources in the Area, that are polymetallic manganese nodules (PMN, adopted on 13 July 2000, updated, and adopted on 25 July 2013; polymetallic massive sulphides (PMS, adopted on 7 May 2010); and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts (CFC, adopted on 27 July 2012). Draft exploitation regulations are under development and negotiation since 2014, with current negotiations provided in the open access document ISBA/27/C/3.

The first global marine scientific project dedicated to research of the world’s oceans started with the Challenger expeditions in 1872. The expeditions included mapping and sampling programs and it created the first evidence for the geological continuum between land masses and oceans. It became evident that complete maps of the ocean floor are required. The identification of magnetic stripes on the seabed in the 1950s and 1960s by scientific magnetic surveys soon led to the development of the theory of plate tectonics. And contributed scientific evidence to the seafloor map. All these efforts have led to a solid, sometimes detailed understanding of the world’s geomorphology and geology. The large variations and numerous details, however, make it necessary to improve mapping to resolutions which allow for better knowledge, understanding, assessments, identifications, and quantifications – both, on land as well as at sea. Satellite altimetry and advanced echo-sounding data at higher resolutions from a variety of different scientific and commercial data providers form the base for the open access General Bathymetric Map of the Oceans (GEBCO) which today provides a constantly updated global terrain model. Bathymetry largely contributes to the effective implementation of a sound and stringent regulatory framework. Based on extensive high-resolution bathymetric measurements, coastal countries are enabled to define their exclusive economic zones and potentially propose the extension of the continental shelf and the marine area of national jurisdiction.

The GEBCO data were and still are the first step for the identification of seabed mineral resources, marine habitats, potential natural hazards, but also assist in the definition of a regulatory framework. Marine scientific research contributes a significant amount of detailed bathymetry in the different parts of the oceans – particularly along the mid-ocean ridges with the alignment of PMS occurrences, abyssal plains with the potential enrichment of PMN and seamounts with CFC. ISA has entered into 15-year contracts for the exploration for PMN (n=19), PMS (n=7) and CFC (4) in the deep seabed with 21 contractors and 30 contracts. The contracted license areas cover 1.45 million square kilometres representing 0.8% of the entire Area or 0.4% of the world oceans. In the time frame between 2001 and 2021 the contractors spent the amount of USD 1,579,901,917 for their exploration activities, environmental surveys, the development of marine technologies and metallurgy processes, capacity building trainings for scientists from developing countries and other activities. Exploration programmes by ISA furthermore attract significant scientific activities including bathymetric mapping and environmental baseline studies in and around contract areas, for example the area between the Clarion and Clipperton fracture zones (CCZ) in the Central Pacific and the Mid-Ocean ridge system in the northern Atlantic Ocean. Biodiversity in the CCZ is protected by 13 Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEIs) which cover 1.97 million square kilometres or 44% of the entire zone. Technological developments and contractors’ activities led recently to the development of ISA’s draft technology roadmap defining areas of priority for member countries to engage in developments for (i) ocean observation and communication, (ii) monitoring, (iii) automation, autonomy, and robotics, (iv) machine learning by artificial intelligence (AI), (v) mining, energy and metal processing. EU Horizon’s currently funded TRIDENT project greatly contributes to several aspects of this roadmap cross-fertilizing the identified priorities for the aim of developing and establishing a robust monitoring approach for any seabed activities.

ISA contributions to ocean management covers a wide range of aspects including the seabed mineral resource base, biodiversity and habitat identification and protection, marine science, and knowledge management as well as potential new resources including sustainable and net zero geothermal, current, wave energy sources, potential new food resources and fish farming in the deeper water column and future potential in advanced pharmaceuticals from marine microbiome sources.