International Seabed Authority

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The International Seabed Authority is an intergovernmental body established to organize and control all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, an area underlying most of the world’s oceans. It is an autonomous organization having a relationship agreement with the United Nations.

The Authority, in existence since 1994, was established and its tasks were defined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, as refined by the 1994 Agreement relating to the Implementation of Part XI (seabed provisions) of the Convention. The Convention defines this deep seabed area as “the common heritage of mankind”. The Authority has 135 member states, its membership consisting of all parties to the Law of the Sea Convention.

Two principal organs establish the policies and govern the work of the Authority: the Assembly, in which all members are represented, and a 36-member Council elected by the Assembly. Council members are chosen according to a formula designed to ensure equitable representation of countries from various groups, including those engaged in seabed mineral exploration and the land-based producers of minerals found on the seabed. The Authority holds one annual session, usually of two weeks duration. Its seventh session was held in July 2001; its eighth session is scheduled for August 2002.

The Authority operates by contracting with private and public corporations and other entities authorizing them to explore, and eventually exploit, specified areas on the deep seabed for mineral resources. The Convention also established a body called the Enterprise which is to serve as the Authority’s own mining operator, but no concrete steps have been taken to bring this into being.

The Authority’s sole substantive accomplishment to date has been the adoption in July 2000 of regulations governing exploration for polymetallic nodules. These resources contain varying amounts of manganese, cobalt, copper and nickel. They occur as potato-sized lumps scattered about on the surface of the ocean floor, mainly in the central Pacific Ocean but with some deposits in the Indian Ocean. During the first half of 2001, the Authority signed exploration contracts with seven entities, giving them exclusive rights to explore for nodules in specific areas, under terms spelled out in the regulations.

The Authority decided in July 2001 to begin work on another set of regulations, covering polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich crusts--rich sources of such minerals as copper, iron, zinc, silver and gold, as well as cobalt. The sulphides are found around volcanic hot springs, especially in the western Pacific Ocean, while the crusts occur on oceanic ridges and elsewhere at several locations around the world.

In addition to its legislative work, the Authority organizes annual workshops on various aspects of seabed exploration, with emphasis on measures to protect the marine environment from any harmful consequences. It disseminates the results of these meetings through publications.

The Authority, with a budget of scarcely more than $5 million a year and a staff of fewer than 40, faces two severe limitations on its future work. First, contrary to early hopes that seabed mining would generate extensive revenues for both the exploiting countries and the Authority, no technology has been developed for gathering deep-sea minerals at costs that can compete with land-based mines, and the general consensus is that economic mining of the ocean depths is decades away. Second, the United States, with some of the most advanced ocean technology in the world, has not yet ratified the Law of the Sea Convention and is thus not a member of the Authority.


External links

  • [2] United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982)