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 fourteenth session was held in Kingston in May/June 2008.
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 exploration system envisaged in the Law of the Sea Convention, overseen by the Authority, came to life with the signature in 2001/02 of 15-year contracts with seven organizations that had applied for specific seabed areas in which they were authorized to explore for polymetallic nodules. In 2006 a German entity was added to the list.
The eight current contractors are: Yuzhmorgeologya (Russian Federation); Interoceanmetal Joint Organization (IOM) (Bulgaria, Cuba, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland and Russian Federation); the Government of the Republic of Korea; China Ocean Minerals Research and Development Association (COMRA) (China); Deep Ocean Resources Development Company (DORD) (Japan); Institut français de recherche pour l’exploitation de la mer (IFREMER) (France); the Government of India, and the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources of Germany.
All but one of the current areas of exploration are in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, in the Equatorial North Pacific Ocean south and southeast of Hawaii. The remaining area, being explored by India, is in the Central Indian Basin of the Indian Ocean.
Each area is limited to 150,000 square kilometers, of which half is to be relinquished to the Authority after eight years. Each contractor is required to report once a year on its activities in its assigned area. So far, none of them has indicated any serious move to begin commercial exploitation.
In 2008, the Authority received two new applications for authorization to explore for polymetallic nodules, coming for the first time from private firms in developing island nations of the Pacific. Sponsored by their respective governments, they were submitted by Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. and Tonga Offshore Mining Limited . However, in the absence of consensus on the complex technical issues raised by these applicationos, the Authority's Legal and Technical Commission decided to defer action, probably until 2009.
The Authority’s main legislative accomplishment to date has been the adoption in 2000 of regulations governing exploration for polymetallic nodules. These resources, also called manganese nodules, 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.
The Council of the Authority began work in August 2002 on another set of regulations, covering polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich ferromanganese 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. The Council decided in 2006 to prepare separate sets of regulations for sulphides and for crusts, with priority given to sulphides. It devoted most of its sessions in 2007 and 2008 to this task, but several issues remained unresolved. Chief among these were the definition and configuration of the area to be allocated to contractors for exploration, the fees to be paid to the Authority and the question of how to deal with any overlapping claims that might arise. Meanwhile, the Legal and Technical Commission reported progress on ferromanganese crusts.
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. Studies over several years covering the key mineral area of the Central Pacific resulted in a technical study on biodiversity, species ranges and gene flow in the abyssal Pacific nodule province, with emphasis on predicting and managing the impacts of deep seabed mining A workshop at Manoa, Hawaii, in October 2007 produced a rationale and recommendations for the establishment of "preservation reference areas" in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, where nodule mining would be prohibited in order to leave the natural environment intact. The most recent workshop, held at Chennai, India, in February 2008, concerned polymetallic nodule mining technology, with special reference to its current status and challenges ahead
In 2006 the Authority established an Endowment Fund to Support Collaborative Marine Scientific Research on the International Seabed Area. The Fund will aid experienced scientists and technicians from developing countries to participate in deep-sea research organized by international and national institutions. A campaign was launched in February 2008 to identify participants, establish a network of cooperating bodies and seek outside funds to augment the initial $3 million endowment from the Authority.
Contrary to early hopes that seabed mining would generate extensive revenues for both the exploiting countries and the Authority, no technology has yet been developed for gathering deep-sea minerals at costs that can compete with land-based mines. Until recently, the general consensus has been that economic mining of the ocean depths might be decades away. Moreover, 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.
In recent years, however, interest in deep-sea mining, especially with regard to ferromanganese crusts and polymetallic sulphides, has picked up among several firms now operating in waters within the national zones of Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga. Papua New Guinea was the first country in the world to grant commercial exploration licenses for seafloor massive sulphide deposits when it granted the initial license to Nautilus Minerals in 1997. Japan’s new ocean policy emphasizes the need to develop methane hydrate and hydrothermal deposits within Japan’s exclusive economic zone and calls for the commercialization of these resources within the next 10 years. Reporting on these developments in his annual report to the Authority in April 2008, Secretary-General Nandan referred also to the upward trend in demand and prices for cobalt, copper, nickel and manganese, the main metals that would be derived from seabed mining, and he noted that technologies being developed for offshore extraction could be adapted for deep sea mining.
In its preamble, UNCLOS defines the international seabed area—the part under ISA jurisdiction—as “the seabed and ocean floor and the subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction”. There are no maps annexed to the Convention to delineate this area. Rather, UNCLOS outlines the areas of national jurisdiction, leaving the rest for the international portion. National jurisdiction over the seabed normally leaves off at 200 nautical miles seaward from baselines running along the shore, unless a nation can demonstrate that its continental shelf is naturally prolonged beyond that limit, in which case it may claim up to 350 miles. ISA has no role in determining this boundary. Rather, this task is left to another body established by UNCLOS, the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which examines scientific data submitted by coastal states that claim a broader reach. Maritime boundaries between states are generally decided by bilateral negotiation (sometimes with the aid of judicial bodies), not by ISA.
Recently, there has been much interest in the possibility of exploiting seabed resources in the Arctic Ocean, bordered by Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Russia and the United States (see Territorial claims in the Arctic). Any seabed area not belonging to these states would fall under ISA jurisdiction.
Because of these concerns, the United States pushed for modification of the Convention, obtaining a 1994 Agreement on Implementation that somewhat mitigates them and thus modifies the ISA's authority. Despite this change the United States has not ratified the Convention and so is not a member of ISA, although it sends sizable delegations to participate in meetings as an observer. On October 31, 2007 the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate, by a vote of 17 to 4, recommended ratification; no date has yet been set for action by the full Senate.