Mexico, a nation that previously supported the development of deep-sea mining, has now called for a moratorium on this activity in international waters. One environmental expert called Mexico’s announcement a “seismic shift” from the nation’s former position.

The Mexican government made the announcement on Nov. 21, two weeks after member states of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the U.N.-affiliated body tasked with regulating deep-sea mining, met to work on a set of regulations that would allow deep-sea mining to begin. Despite continued work, observers say these rules are far from complete.

Mexico’s Secretariat of Foreign Affairs said in its announcement that it will support a moratorium on seabed mining in international waters until there is solid science as well as regulations and procedures that would “protect the marine environment against any potentially harmful effects.”

“Mexico will not sponsor or support the ISA Council in granting any exploration licenses until there is sufficient scientific information that ensures the marine environment is protected, in addition to a solid and complete legal framework,” the secretariat said in the statement.

Before this announcement, some Mexican delegates to the ISA had expressed support for fast-tracking mining regulations that would enable mining to start and disapproved of any barriers to the granting of licenses to mining companies that applied after July 2023. At an event sponsored by the international NGO WWF, which took place on the sidelines of the ISA meetings in July 2023, Mexican Ambassador Marcelino Miranda also responded to calls to halt deep-sea mining by suggesting that critics may be “fighting the wrong enemy,” and that the world should be focusing on phasing out fossil fuels and switching over to electric technologies.

A common argument for deep-sea mining is that it is needed to procure critical metals to develop renewable technologies such as electric cars and wind turbines.

“Mexico’s position is quite an example; hopefully, several other countries will call for a moratorium as well.”

Mario Gomez, founder and director of the Mexican conservation group Beta Diversidad, said he believed the recent appointment of Alicia Bárcena, Mexico’s new secretary of foreign affairs, in September 2023, as well as stronger coordination between the secretariats of foreign affairs and environment, helped foster the change in Mexico’s position.

​​“It’s a first step,” Gomez told Mongabay in an interview. “Mexico’s position is quite an example; hopefully, several other countries will call for a moratorium as well.”

Steve Trent, the CEO and founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation, an NGO that opposes deep sea mining, took a similar view: “Mexico was, until today, one of the biggest supporters of deep-sea mining, meaning that their support for a moratorium is a truly seismic shift,” he said in a statement.

Twenty-three other states out of the ISA’s 169 members, including Brazil, Chile, France, Germany, Palau, Spain and the United Kingdom, have also called for either a moratorium, precautionary pause, or ban on deep-sea mining.

While deep-sea mining has yet to start anywhere in the world, Canadian firm The Metals Company (TMC), has stated that it intends to apply for a mining license after the July 2024 meeting of the ISA. However, such a move may encounter significant pushback from environmental groups. TMC is currently conducting research in the Pacific on the vessel M/V Coco, but activists from the NGO Greenpeace have boarded the vessel and are obstructing TMC’s activities. In response, TMC has launched legal action against Greenpeace.

While Mexico has called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining in international waters, it remains to be seen if it will allow seabed mining in its national waters. In 2012 and 2014, U.S. company Odyssey Marine Explorations (NASDAQ: OMEX) obtained several concessions to extract phosphate for agricultural fertilizer from the seabed in the Bay of Ulloa, off the coast of Baja California and within Mexico’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a project known as “Don Diego.” However, in 2016 and 2018, the Mexican government denied permits for this project due to environmental concerns, including potential damage to fishing areas and habitat for loggerhead turtles, gray whales, and humpback whales. In response, Odyssey has sued the Mexican government for billions of dollars for lost potential profit.

Gomez said that if the Don Diego project eventually went ahead, it would be “very damaging” to the marine ecosystem.

“We need to protect our exclusive economic zone,” Gomez said, “and we need to start creating marine protected areas that, through presidential decree, ban mining activity in that region.”

Written by Elizabeth Claire Alberts and originally published by Mongabay under Creative Commons licence CC BY-ND.

Banner image photo credit: SEMARNAT.