Oceans Essay

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Oceans cover 71 percent of the earth’s surface and contain 97 percent of the planet’s water. Over 20 percent of the world’s petroleum is derived from offshore sources, and 95 percent of world trade by weight-or two-thirds by value-is carried by ship. Eighty percent of the world’s fish catch comes from the ocean, supporting the livelihoods of 140 million people. Economists have calculated that the world’s oceans provide services to humanity valued at 21 trillion dollars, as opposed to only 12 trillion dollars provided by land.

Yet the ocean has emerged as an area of environmental concern only recently. In the European tradition of marine management, it was long believed that the ocean’s resources were inexhaustible and that its environment was invulnerable to damage from human activities. These beliefs contributed to 17th-century jurist Hugo Grotius’s assertion that, beyond the coastal zone, the ocean should be immune to possession by states, a legal principle that continues to inform the law of the sea.

By the mid-20th century, however, it was becoming clear that the ocean demanded the attention of environmental scientists, activists, and policy makers. Economic competition was breeding technological innovations that were increasingly endangering the marine environment. For instance, competitive pressures were leading fishers to adopt new technologies. These new technologies not only enabled higher catch rates, but they also led to a situation wherein fishers had to catch more fish in order to pay for their expensive equipment. Similar dynamics were occurring in the emergent industry of offshore petroleum drilling. At the same time, an increase in the volume of shipborne trade-from 996 million tons in 1959 to 6,760 million tons in 2005-was increasing the potential for ship-generated pollution.

As the 20th century proceeded, more effluents from industrialization, urbanization, and chemical agriculture on land were finding their way to the sea, joining waste products that were being dumped there intentionally. As oceanographers gained a better understanding of ocean currents and marine geophysics, they realized the magnitude of the connections among the world’s oceans: What seemed like a local environmental problem could have global implications. Indeed, environmental scientists today usually speak of one world-ocean rather than several smaller oceans.

In addition, as climatologists have learned more about periodic climactic events (e.g., the El Nino Southern Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation) and global climate change, they have gained an appreciation of the ocean’s role as both an indicator and regulator of trends in the world’s climate. An increase in the atmospheric temperature, for instance, would raise the temperature of the ocean. This, in turn, could lead to disastrous impacts for fish stocks, human populations (because of increased storm activity), and ocean circulation systems. Alterations in the ocean circulation system, in turn, could further impact local climates, creating a vicious cycle of climate change in which the ocean would play a leading role.

Increased scientific understanding of (and concern for) the marine environment has been joined by a growth in public awareness. The adventures of celebrity-explorers like Jacques Cousteau, the writings of environmental travel writers like Carl Safina, the interventions of policy advocates like Sylvia Earle, and the warnings of environmental muckrakers like Rachel Carson have all alerted the public to the world’s endangered marine environment. To raise environmental consciousness, environmentalists have used a number of images that highlight the ocean as a space deserving protection: The image of the globe from outer space, which illustrates the significance of water on the “blue planet”; the romantic ideal of the ocean as a pristine space of nature that is free from the institutions and influences of human society; and the exotic character of iconic marine fauna and flora, such as whales, manatees, and coral reefs.

Management Problems

Despite the upswell of support for protecting the environment, it has been difficult to achieve effective ocean governance. In part, this is because marine resources are common property resources. Individuals have little incentive to effectively manage a resource if they believe that others will benefit from their sacrifice. Proponents of this “tragedy of the commons” scenario contend that all fishers have an incentive to overexploit a fishery, because if they were to show restraint it would only aid their neighbor’s catch. Compounding this problem is the fluid nature of the ocean as a physical space. Put simply, fish and pollutants move. If one individual (or one country) chooses not to fish a certain species in order to conserve it, that fish will likely move into another individual’s (or country’s) territory, where it can be caught. Most pollutants are similarly mobile in the ocean (as they are in the air). One has less of an incentive to curtail marine pollution if one believes that others will bear the bulk of the cost.

These problems are exacerbated by the fact that much of the ocean lies outside the territory of any state. To implement any restrictions in international waters, all states (or at least all sea-going states) would have to agree to curtail the behavior of their ships. This rarely happens, given the competitive nature of the global political-economic system in which states are central actors. But even if all states were to adopt a program for effectively managing the ocean, there still would be the problem of enforcement. Under international law, the High Seas (the area of the ocean beyond the borders of any state) are considered the territory of no one.

A ship on the High Seas is treated as an extension of the territory of the state whose flag it is flying (a ship not flying any national flag is legally designated as a pirate ship and can be seized by any other ship). This means that if the world’s states were to agree to marine environmental regulations, they would have two options for enforcement: Either each state would be responsible for policing the environmental behavior of its own ships or all states (or at least all sea-going states) would have to cooperate together to patrol the High Seas. Either option would be tremendously expensive. Even in a state’s territorial waters (or in its Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ], the zone between 12 and 200 nautical miles from shore in which a state has exclusive rights to its resources), many states are unable to mount effective patrols. As a result, many countries lose substantial revenues due to resources that are “poached” from their EEZs or territorial waters. In international waters, policing is nonexistent. Thus, even if all of the world’s seagoing states were to agree on a marine conservation strategy, they also would need to devote tremendous resources to patrolling the seas so as to prevent rogue states (or rogue ships) from “cheating.”

Finally, efforts to develop a comprehensive regime for managing the world’s marine environment have been hampered by the fact that the most important use of the sea, in terms of economic value, is associated with its function as a surface for shipping. Shippers (and the world’s navies) depend on the sea being a relatively open space-with few boundaries, few rules, and few policing authorities-and they have long been wary of efforts to govern and patrol the ocean, for fear that these efforts might encroach on the “freedom of the seas” that they enjoy.

Fisheries Management

Notwithstanding these obstacles, there have been many efforts to manage the marine environment at a number of scales. Historically, many fisheries have managed themselves. Common property resources have not always been constructed as open access. In some instances, new entrants have not been allowed to fish existing areas. In other cases, all fishers have agreed to limit their technology. Knowledge may be tightly guarded, effectively barring new entrants from an existing fishery. Seasonal restrictions and catch limits are common as well. In some communities, fishers obtain formal tenure rights over aquatic resources. In Japan, for instance, no conceptual distinction exists between land holdings and land tenure and sea holdings (or sea tenure) and fisheries enjoy a legal status equal to that of land ownership.

When these techniques have been adopted by state fishery management agencies, they typically have been aided by calculations regarding a fishery’s Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY). To determine a fishery’s MSY, ecologists examine population dynamics in a fishery and model the changes that are likely to occur from increased or decreased fishing rates and from changes in the marine environment. Using these models, one can estimate the maximum rate of extraction that will allow the fishery’s population to remain stable.

MSY is not without its critics. Some have noted that MSY calculations typically revolve around sustaining the viability of a specific species and not that of an ecosystem. Allowing one species to thrive through partial protection may lead other species’ populations to expand or decline, which could precipitate a cascading series of unforeseen circumstances that may-in the end-endanger the survival of the very species that one was initially trying to protect.

Others have noted that MSY models are based on the principle of sustaining fish and not the communities of humans that depend on those fish. Still others note that MSY models are informed by the assumption that local environments are essentially stable and tend toward equilibrium, and they charge that this assumption may not represent the actual dynamism of local ecologies.

Once an MSY is established, governmental agencies (in some cases at the national scale and in other cases at more local scales) typically implement a number of strategies to reduce annual fish catch to this level. In some cases, governments attempt to reduce the size of regional fishing fleets through voluntary means, for instance by offering to buy back fishing equipment and to train fishers for new livelihoods. Sometimes governments will resort to more top-down measures, such as prohibiting the use of certain technologies, shortening the fishing season, banning the harvesting of juvenile fish who have not reproduced, or setting seasonal or daily catch limits.

There also have been efforts to give consumers the lead role in mandating sustainable fishing practices. This involves “green labeling” fish that have been harvested from sustainable fisheries. If consumers refuse to purchase fish or fish products that do not bear this label, then fisheries will have an incentive to modify their practices so as to obtain certification.

Another means for managing fisheries involves the institution of Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs). ITQs effectively transform a fishery from a common property resource into individual property. In a typical ITQ system, each fishing vessel is given an ITQ, which essentially is a license to fish a percentage of the MSY. In theory, over time the less efficient fishers will sell their ITQs to more efficient fishers, creating a fishery that is both economically profitable and environmentally sustainable.

In practice, however, outside interests often end up buying and controlling large fleets of vessels, disrupting what previously may have been a self-governing fishing community. Because they can choose to sell their ITQs and take their investments elsewhere, these outside interests may be even less devoted to the sustainable management of the fishery than were the local fishers who had been fishing it as a common property resource.

Marine Protected Areas

Perhaps the most sweeping technique for managing the oceans is the establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs): bounded territories in the ocean in which certain marine activities are not allowed. These may be established as a temporary measure (for instance, to allow a species to rebound after years of overfishing) or as a permanent measure (for instance, as an underwater national park).

MPAs cause dramatic dislocations in existing fishing (and other ocean-going) communities, and some critics have also questioned whether MPAs are truly designed to support the ocean environment or whether they are simply a strategy used by one ocean-using industry to remove the presence of a competing ocean-using industry. For instance, in the waters of the coast of Florida much of the pressure for drawing boundaries around an area in which offshore drilling is prohibited has come not from environmentalists seeking to preserve the marine ecosystem but from the tourism industry, which is dependent on attracting beachgoers and sport-fishers and which would be devastated by a coastal oil spill. Likewise, several tropical islands in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean have established MPAs where fishing is banned. Critics charge, however, that this is being done not so much to preserve local fish stocks as to create protected spaces for scuba-diving tourists.

International Agreements

As heavily-capitalized fleets began fishing distant waters, whether on the High Seas or near to another country’s coast, fisheries regulation entered the arena of international treaty law. Some of the first international fishing regulations were bilateral treaties governing specific fish stocks that were known to swim between two adjacent countries’ territorial waters, such as the 1830 English-French accord on fishing in the English Channel and the six-state North Sea convention of 1882.

These were followed by multilateral treaties that-although covering larger areas and extending into portions of the High Seas-were still regional, including United States-Canada accords on North Pacific halibut and salmon, signed in 1923 and 1930, respectively, and a 1943 eleven-state accord governing fishing of various species in the Atlantic and Arctic. While some treaties like these remain important, others have become obsolete as the standard breadth of a state’s territorial waters has grown from 3 nautical miles (the norm until the 1960s) to 12 nautical miles (the norm since then), and as states have claimed EEZs out to 200 nautical miles. These expansions of state authority in the sea were legitimated by the 1982 United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and, in some cases, they have obviated the need for international accords and facilitated state efforts to manage fisheries.

Even with these extended territorial waters, however, there are still some species that defy unilateral or bilateral control because they are harvested in waters beyond the 200 nautical mile limit or because they migrate over several states’ EEZs. International policy makers realized early on that conservation of these species posed a particularly difficult problem, and some of the early multilateral marine treatiesincluding a 1926 whaling convention and a 1949 tuna convention-were specifically directed at these highly migratory species that often are harvested beyond the continental shelf.

In 1995, just as UNCLOS was coming into force, the UN passed a side agreement “relating to the conservation and management of straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks” that encouraged the establishment of regional fishing associations among states whose vessels fished an area of the High Seas and adjacent EEZs.

The side agreement required that states belonging to a regional fishing association ensure that their vessels follow whatever rules might be agreed to by these associations as well as follow any rules that had been established by global treaties restricting the harvesting of a specific species. Membership in a regional association (or in a global treaty) is voluntary, however, and neither individual states nor the UN has the authority to remove a ship flying the flag of a nonmember state from a High Seas fishery.

Amidst this patchwork of regulatory frameworks, efforts to manage the world’s fisheries have been only partially successful. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates that, as of 2000, approximately 50 percent of the world’s fish species were being harvested at their MSY, 25 percent were being overfished, and 25 percent could be fished at higher rates.

The FAO also notes that the percentage of fish species being overfished has increased significantly since the early 1970s. Furthermore, declining populations of some species are leading fishers on a race, quite literally, to the bottom, as fishers redirect their efforts to the ocean’s depths where they are harvesting cold-water species that previously had evaded their attention. These fish, which often are culinary delicacies, typically grow and reproduce at very slow rates and hence are extremely vulnerable to population collapse and even extinction.


While global fishery regulations, for the most part, have been organized by states (operating on their own or through the UN), the shipping industry has largely regulated itself. Individuals and corporations that trade goods via ship require that ships carry insurance, and insurance companies require that ships are manufactured and operated according to certain standards, so as to maximize the likelihood that the ship will deliver its cargo safely. Industry-associated institutions include Lloyd’s of London, which, since 1834, has been classifying ships according to their construction standards and operating conditions, and the Comite Maritime International (CMI), an association of national maritime-law associations created in 1897 to facilitate the creation of universal industry standards.

Historically, however, few of the self-regulations adopted by the shipping industry have concerned the marine environment through which ships sail. Instead, the industry has focused on such issues as: Ship owners’ liability, duty to tender assistance, salvage rights, mortgages and liens on ships, safety of navigation, immunity of state-owned ships, treatment of stowaways, status of ships in foreign ports, and registry rules. Ship owners have largely ignored the marine environment for the simple reason that, unlike fishers, the degradation of the marine environment would have minimal impact on their business.

Nonetheless, shipping can impact the environment, both from wrecks (most notably of oil tankers) and from normal operations (e.g., discharge of bilge water). The National Ocean Industries Association, a U.S. industry group, estimates that 44 million gallons of petroleum are released into the ocean annually by tanker ships, and additional quantities of petroleum and other pollutants are released by ships transporting goods other than petroleum. Discharged ballast water also can endanger the marine environment by introducing invasive species that have been transported from a distant area of the world-ocean.

Ship owners (and their insurers) have begun to pay more attention to the environmental impacts of shipping, as they recognize that they risk liability if pollution generated by a ship causes environmental damage to a coastline or a state’s territorial waters. There is no remedy, however, if a ship pollutes the High Seas, so long as it is not violating the laws of the state under whose flag it is flying or the conditions of an international convention to which that state is a party.

Mineral Extraction

A third major use of (and potential threat to) the marine environment is mineral extraction. Although salt has long been extracted from the ocean, the most economically significant mineral resource in the ocean today-petroleum-began to be extracted from offshore locations only in 1937. In a sense, mineral extraction is the simplest marine activity to regulate because it occurs at fixed points. Additionally, because miners must make investments in the sites where they mine, they require states to govern their activities (for instance, by setting up leasing systems whereby mining companies make royalty payments to governments in return for exclusive rights to mine an area).

This dependence on governmental regulation gives states a degree of leverage over miners’ environmental impacts that they do not have over fishers or shippers. State regulation of marine mining activities also has been facilitated by the fact that, for now at least, all marine mineral extraction takes place on the continental shelf and thus falls within a state’s territorial waters or EEZ.

In the 1960s, it appeared that this aspect of marine mining was about to change, as economists calculated that it would soon become profitable to mine the seabed outside of EEZs. Specifically, miners were attracted to the possibility of mining manganese nodules, potato-sized concentrations of manganese, nickel, cobalt, and copper that coat the surface of the seabed in certain areas of the ocean, beyond the continental shelf.

The potential for manganese nodule mining posed a number of environmental and legal dilemmas. Environmentally, it was not clear what impact the scraping of the seabed over a large swath of space would have on the surrounding marine ecosystem (most other marine mining is undertaken by digging downward, not by scraping the surface). Legally, miners were faced with the problem that they wished to mine in a zone that was the territory of no one. While in one sense this was ideal for miners (there would be no one to make royalty payments to) it was unsettling to potential investors who feared that there would be no political authority to guarantee a company’s legal right to mine a surveyed area.

In the end, the UN established a regime under which, for these purposes only, it would behave much like a state, with the High Seas as its territory. The UN’s International Seabed Authority claimed the right to manage extraction of resources from the seabed beneath the High Seas, because the seabed’s resources were “the common heritage of mankind.”

For various reasons, High Seas manganese nodule mining has never occurred at a commercial scale. Nonetheless, the establishment of a global regime for managing and extracting resources from this global space has led policy makers and environmental activists to look to the ocean as they consider new models for environmental management. Whether one focuses on “traditional” ocean tenure systems through which communities have managed their local fisheries or the international seabed regime established by the UN for managing production in a space outside state borders, the interconnectedness of the world-ocean forces one to consider how an environment can be managed both as a distinct space of social and natural relations and as one component of an interconnected, global ecosystem.


  1. Elizabeth Mann Borgese, The Oceanic Circle: Governing the Seas as a Global Resource (United Nations University Press, 1998);
  2. Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us (Oxford University Press, 1951);
  3. John Cordell, A Sea of Small Boats (Cultural Survival, 1989);
  4. Sylvia Earle, Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans (Balentine, 1996);
  5. William Langewiesche, The Outlaw Sea: Chaos and Crime on the World’s Oceans (Granta, 2005);
  6. Carl Safina, Song for the Blue Ocean: Encounters Along the World’s Coasts and Beneath the Seas (Owl Books, 1999);
  7. Philip E. Steinberg, The Social Construction of the Ocean (Cambridge University Press, 2001);
  8. Jon Van Dyke, Durwood Zaelke, and Grant Hewison, Freedom for the Seas in the 21st Century: Ocean Governance and Environmental Harmony (Island Press, 1993).

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