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Tampa's Odyssey Marine files claim to mine undersea phosphate deposits off the coast of Mexico

Under president and CEO Mark Gordon, Odyssey Marine Exploration has shifted its business model from treasure-hunting toward discovering, developing and extracting undersea minerals like phosphate. [Photo courtesy Odyssey Marine Exploration]
Published Mar. 25

TAMPA — Odyssey Marine Exploration made its name finding shipwrecks and lost gold, but it announced Monday that it is taking a new step in its efforts to establish a much different line of business: finding and mining underseas minerals.

Odyssey is looking at a seabed deposit of black phosphate-rich sands that one global investment bank has valued at $3.5 billion, according to a notice that Odyssey recently filed with the Mexican government. Located in the Pacific Ocean about 25 miles off the coast of Baja California Sur, it is believed to contain at least 588 million tons and up to 1 billion tons of phosphate ore, or enough to supply North America's fertilizer needs for the next 100 years.

Mining that phosphate, the company says, would create hundreds of jobs, generate millions of dollars in annual royalties and tax revenues for Mexico, transform the country from an importer to an exporter of fertilizer and help make Mexico more food-secure.

Since being founded in 1994, Odyssey has recovered tons of lost gold and silver from the ocean floor, surveyed and mapped more than 26,000 square miles of seabed and discovered hundreds of shipwrecks dating from the third century B.C. to World War II. But however glamorous, treasure-hunting is financially risky, so Odyssey has worked to shift its business model toward discovering, developing and extracting deep-ocean minerals.

In November, Odyssey president and chief executive officer Mark Gordon said the company had "the runway necessary to fully execute our strategic plan to become a dominant force in the emerging seafloor minerals space."

TIMES COLUMNIST ROBERT TRIGAUX: Down but not out, Tampa's Odyssey Marine preps to swap treasure hunting for bigger ocean game

In Mexico, Odyssey and one of its subsidiaries, Exploraciones Oceánicas, have spent six years and more than $20 million "planning for the environmentally sound development" of the undersea phosphate ore, the company said in its filing with Mexican officials. Odyssey says it has worked to show the phosphate can be brought up from an average depth of about 260 feet "in an environmentally responsible manner causing no long- or even short-term negative effects on the local marine environment" and "no material impact on flora and fauna."

Exploraciones Oceánicas has secured the concession rights to mine the phosphate for 50 years. But Odyssey has blamed "political interference" from Mexico's former Secretary of the Environment, Rafael Pacchiano, for project denial in spring 2016 and late 2018. (In between the denials, the company said, Mexico's Superior Tribunal of Administrative Justice ruled that the 2016 denial did not consider the actual circumstances of the project and the "extensive environmental mitigation measures" that Exploraciones Oceánicas had proposed.)

So the company announced Monday that it has filed a notice of a claim under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, to protect its rights to develop the phosphate deposits. That notice launches a consultation period giving Odyssey and the administration of new Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office late last year, a chance to resolve the dispute amicably.

"We believe that development of this strategically and economically significant resource aligns with the key objectives outlined by Mexico's new administration to transform the economy and achieve food security for the benefit of the Mexican people," Gordon said in an announcement of the claim. "Our proposals also fully comply with principles of careful environmental stewardship, consistent with Odyssey's core values. We welcome the opportunity to work with the Mexican Government during this consultation period to find a way forward that benefits all parties."

Odyssey Marine's stock closed up slightly at $7.35 a share Monday.

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Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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