Achieving the Ocean Commons

How do we govern and manage the ocean inside and outside of national jurisdiction in order to use it responsibly and assure its long-term potential? How do we collectively affirm the transformational change required to meet the conditions and challenges we face worldwide?

The world is connected, not divided, by the sea — through the circulation of protein, goods, people, and ideas. The ocean contains an enormous, unexplored inventory of medicinal cures, unlimited energy, and the desalinated drinking water that each of us needs in exactly the same amount each day, developed or developing, rich or poor, north or south, to survive. Climate change, extreme weather, and sea level rise can threaten anytime, anywhere, in a tumultuous instant making environmental refugees of us all. These are essential things, and we are living with them now.

Most of us are familiar from our colonial history lessons with the idea the commons, that central portion of land around which a settlement was built that was shared by all for pasturage of animals, agriculture, and general well-being. We may also be aware of the influential essay, “Tragedy of the Commons,” by ecologist Garrett Hardin, first published in Science in 1968, which describes a dilemma arising from a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.

Turning to the ocean, we realize that it is the greatest commons of them all. International law delimits national interest in ocean resources to an “exclusive economic zone” up to 200 miles offshore. The balance — that is, 64% of the ocean surface and 90% of its volume — lies outside such governance and includes the high seas, the ocean floor and subsoil, an enormous compendium of natural resources to include all marine species, minerals, chemicals, and genetic resources of incalculable value to human kind. This essential asset value must not be lost.

It is a vast challenge to protect, manage, and sustain such a resource, especially when agreement involves multiple levels of governance and a broad spectrum of public and private enterprise. The tragedy of the ocean commons is evinced by the intrusion of polluting elements from the nations and their self-interests that invade and destroy the shared value without constraint, without question.

In an article in the 2021 Proceedings of the US National Academy of Science, Joachim Claudet and colleagues argue for equity as the guiding principle for transformational change from our current model of governance. To begin, specifically in the ocean sector, they suggest three initiatives to unite scientific exploration of the ocean, deep sea research, and interdisciplinary, international collaboration: first, to construct or repurpose vessels as “a research fleet for the world,” ships and other data collection devices, positioned globally as platforms for research by scientists anywhere; second, to establish an International Deep Sea Station, comparable to the International Space Station, to help humankind understand and promote the ocean as an integrated, global, natural and social system available for our mutual benefit, and, third, to establish a Global Institute for the Ocean to engage the international community in the co-production of knowledge, the discovery, cataloguing and stewardship of ocean biodiversity, and the distribution of educational services worldwide through public access and engagement.

Finally, the authors suggest a specific governance structure for the vast areas that exist outside areas of national jurisdiction, that 64% of the total ocean surface, a radical shift from the present efforts to address and regulate activity there by sector, by treaty, and by regulation, an approach that is complicated, difficult, and not particularly successful to date, witness the conflict of national interests as seen in the climate negotiations and qualified outcome at COP26. Two alternatives are proposed: first, a public high level panel for the sustainable ocean, similar what has been established for a sustainable ocean economy, whereby 14 heads of state have created a unified partnership toward a common goal, executed independently from the confusion of interests and perspectives about the economic development and valuation of the ocean; and, second, a private partnership of international financial executives who would lead by example, incorporating the most effective, equitable practices into their business and recruiting others to accept equity and the principles of the commons, seriously and substantially, into their values, structures, and behaviors.

How do we govern, how do we manage the ocean inside and outside national jurisdiction, to use it responsibly, to sustain its value near and long-term, and to assure its potential forever for the benefit of all mankind? How do we affirm, not deny, the transformational change required to meet the conditions and challenges we now face worldwide? These suggestions are first steps in a different direction. The ocean is free of the geo-political boundaries that separate us and are the perimeters of our conflict. Can we manage it better, not apart? Can we realize the commonality of human experience through it, in it, for it, and for us all? The opportunity is there for a new uncommon common purpose.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. He is also host of World Ocean Radio, upon which this blog is inspired. World Ocean Radio celebrates 12 years this year, with more than 600 episodes produced to date.

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World Ocean Forum

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Dedicated to proposals for change in ocean policy and action worldwide, linking unexpected people with unexpected ideas about the ocean.