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Strategies for Sustainable Management of Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vents in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge

Strategies for Sustainable Management of Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vents in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge

Simonne Valcour

Living along the bottom of the seabed under immense pressure, with volatile temperatures, toxic minerals, and devoid of sunlight, is the ecosystem of deep-sea hydrothermal vents.[1] These vents exist where tectonic plates spread apart and magma rises.[2] They are created when seawater circulates through figures in the ocean’s crust and becomes super-heated by magma.[3] After the mineral-rich waters reemerge, the minerals solidify to form vents.[4] These vents are the homes of biodiverse ecosystems and valuable mineral deposits.[5] Thus, it is a target for scientific research, the biotechnology industry, and mining companies.[6]

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR) is a submarine ridge extending for approximately 10,000 miles in a curving path from the Arctic Ocean to near the southern tip of Africa and contains multiple vent fields.[7] The plethora of resource-rich ecosystems along the deep-sea hydrothermal ridges has opened up the MAR to extensive exploration and exploitation by deep sea drilling industry and scientific research.[8]

As a result, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) has granted mineral exploration and exploitation leases in the MAR.[9] The deep sea-bed of the MAR is part of the “common heritage of mankind” under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).[10] UNCLOS charges the ISA with developing regulations and granting leases for protecting and exploration for the Deep Seabed Mining (DSM) under Part XI of the Convention.[11] The ISA has already granted a significant number of exploration contracts along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.[12] As a result of these contracts, the MAR will need eventual environmental protection to allow for recuperation of the ecosystems present along the ridge.

This Note discusses the ISA’s governance structure and analyzes mechanisms through which greater environmental protection can be enforced along the MAR. First, Part I of this Note discusses the nature of hydrothermal vents in the MAR and their ecologic and economic potential. Second, Part II of this Note analyzes the legal international environmental framework that currently exist governing the areas beyond national jurisdiction. In addition, environmental protection and management of the MAR by the ISA is analyzed. Lastly, Part III of this Note explores different avenues for environmental protection and management of resources in the MAR.

[1] Cindy Lee Van Dover, The Ecology of Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vents, 4–19 (2000); Deep Sea Hydrothermal Vents, Nat. Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/deep-sea-hydrothermal-vents/ (last visited Dec. 16, 2017).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.; NOAA, What is a Hydrothermal Vent?, https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/vents.html (last visited Dec. 16, 2017).

[5] Id.

[6] Bureau De Recherches Géologiques Et Minières, Critical Minerals for the EU Economy: Foresight to 2030, 6 (2013), https://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/pais/research/researchcentres/csgr/green/foresight/economy/2013_ec_critical_minerals_for_the_eu_economy_-_foresight_to_2030.pdf.

[7] Dover, supra note 1, at 25–49.

[8] Craig H. Allen, Protecting the Oceanic Gardens of Eden: International Law Issues in Deep-Sea Vent Resource Conservation and Management, 13 Geo. Int’l Envtl. L. Rev. 563, 565 (2001); see also International Seabed Authority, Contractors for Seabed Exploration, 1–4 (May 14, 2017), https://www.isa.org.jm/sites/default/files/files/documents/isacontractors.pdf (listing the current status of deep-sea exploration contracts).

[9] Exploration Areas, International Seabed Authority, https://www.isa.org.jm/contractors/exploration-areas (last visited Nov. 22, 2017).

[10] United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea art. 136, Dec. 10, 1982, 1833 U.N.T.S. 397 [hereinafter UNCLOS].

[11] Id. at Annex III.

[12] Id.

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