Contracts: metallic mineral resources in international waters

Mineral resources in international waters (the Area) are managed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA). France has two exploration contracts in the Area, one in the Clarion-Clipperton zone (Pacific Ocean) and the other in the North Atlantic.

The missions of the International Seabed Authority

The ISA regulates, organises and promotes deep seabed mining beyond the limits of national jurisdiction and to protect the marine environment from any harmful effects that may arise from mining activities.

The administration of these resources was entrusted to ISA according to the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea adopted in 1982 and the Agreement of 1994 regarding the application of part XI of the Convention. ISA has 167 member countries. In 2000, the ISA began by adopting regulations on prospecting and exploration of polymetallic nodules. The regulations on prospecting and exploration for polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich crusts were respectively adopted in 2010 and 2012.

In application of these regulations, twenty-four (24) 15-year contracts for exploration have been signed between private or public contractors and the ISA.

Nodule permits

IFREMER, on behalf of the state of France, is the contractor for a 15-year exploration contract involving polymetallic nodules in equatorial North Pacific for an area of 75,000 km². This contract was signed in June 2001 and will end in June 2016.

The work done in this area, in a pioneering effort (nearly 50 cruises were undertaken by France in the 1970s and 1980s to explore for nodules in the Pacific), and during the 15 years of the permit led to a basic estimation of the mining and metal resources and advanced knowledge in the understanding of the benthic ecosystem and its functioning to establish a baseline reference state.

The conditions have not been fulfilled to undertake the first steps of exploitation (economic conditions, assessment of environmental impact, etc.).

As part of the national strategy on the exploration and exploitation of deep seabed mining resources, the French government decided to request a five-year extension. In compliance with ISA regulations, IFREMER filed an application for an extension of the contract in December 2015 and ISA will examine the application during the year 2016.

Sulphide permit – Mid-Atlantic Ridge

A work plan for the exploration of polymetallic sulphides in area off the Mid-Atlantic Ridge was submitted in 2012 and accepted by ISA. A 15-year contract between IFREMER and ISA was signed by both parties in 2014. The area covered by the sulphide contract is located along the volcanic ridge found in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, at a mean depth of 3400 m. After the 15 years, IFREMER must carry out exploration cruises to determine the potential of the contracted area.

Based on state-of-the-art equipment (ocean-going vessels, manned, towed and autonomous underwater vehicles), IFREMER will lead a multi-scale multi-disciplinary exploration strategy to assess the mineral resources, search for hydrothermal vents and study their biodiversity, environmental factors and carry out environmental monitoring.